Up@dawn 2.0

Tuesday, April 28, 2015



I recently watched the Ken Burns series entitled Cancer: Emperor of all Maladies on PBS, and it brought me face to face with the risk that has been required to advance our medical capabilities to their current levels.  The story of Sidney Farber I found particularly compelling, as well as profoundly heartbreaking.  Compelling because Farber achieved great success in the battle against cancer.  Heartbreaking because Farber’s patients were children suffering with a then-incurable – and consistently fatal – disease.  My posts will focus on Sidney Farber, his life, and his incredible contributions to the field of cancer research.
Farber was born in Buffalo, New York on 30 September 1903.  In the 1920s Jews were still often refused admission to medical schools, and so Farber spent his first year of medical school in Germany.  I find this interesting because, in the following decades, those roles would be reversed, as Jews found greater mobility in the United States, even as their very right to exist would be challenged in Germany.  However, Farber excelled in his studies to such a great degree that in his second year he was accepted into Harvard Medical School, where he would graduate in 1927.
After a stint at what is today Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where he trained as a pathologist, he became a resident at Boston Children’s Hospital, and eventually the hospital’s first full-time pathologist in 1929.  Farber cared for children suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, a devastating cancer of the blood.  At that time ALL had a one hundred percent mortality rate.  The children usually died within three months of admission and in agonizing pain for which little relief could be offered.  The dire situation faced by these children drove Farber to undertake what was an incredible risk, that of injecting children with poisonous chemicals.  In 1947 three year old Robert Sandler of Dorchester became the first child to receive Farber’s chemical – or chemo – therapy.  The idea was to poison the cancer with aminopterin, a highly experimental drug.  While not the first attempt to battle cancer with chemicals, Sidney Farber’s treatment would be the first to prove efficacious.

In the next post we will look at the impact of Farber’s treatment, a breakthrough that earned him the title “Father of Modern Chemotherapy.”  In the meantime, check out the documentary here: http://bit.ly/1EffZz7

1 comment:

  1. Next time in Bioethics we'll spend a class on this.