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Summer 1994

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Tribute to a Giant

Dr. R. Lee Clark, 1907-1994

Colleagues and patients from around the world mourned the loss in May of Dr. R. Lee Clark, the first president of M. D. Anderson Cancer Center and a major figure in cancer care both nationally and worldwide.

Dr. Clark died May 4 at the age of 87 in the hospital he helped create. "Countless thousands may never know his name, may never have felt his touch, and may never realize they are in his debt," said Dr. Charles A. LeMaistre, who succeeded Dr. Clark as president of M. D. Anderson in 1978.

Dr. Clark's 32-year leadership of M. D. Anderson began in 1946, when he was named the first full-time director and surgeon-in-chief. At that time, the hospital was housed in a converted estate south of downtown Houston.

Despite the tight budget constraints of the post-war era, Dr. Clark made plans for a permanent M. D. Anderson facility in the Texas Medical Center and recruited physicians and researchers from around the world to come join his staff. The original 234-bed hospital that opened in 1954 was often referred to as "Dr. Clark's pink palace of healing"-a reference to both the Georgia Etowa Pink marble he selected for the exterior and the new hope the facility gave cancer patients around the world.

"Dr. Clark was a visionary who not only dreamed big dreams but who instilled in his listeners confidence that it could be done," said Dr. Joseph T. Painter, whose father helped select Dr. Clark for the M. D. Anderson position and who himself came to work for the institution in 1975.

Dr. Clark was born in 1906 in Hereford, Texas, and grew up as one of nine children in a family of educators. He graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1927 with a degree in chemical engineering and received his medical degree in 1932 from the Medical College of Virginia. His postgraduate training included the University of Paris and the Mayo Clinic. He spent two years in private practice in Jackson, Miss., and four years in the U.S. Air Force before he was selected for the position at M. D. Anderson.

Although a surgeon himself, Dr. Clark was an early advocate of the team approach for treating cancer patients. At first, this meant combining surgery with radiation therapy when appropriate. Later, chemotherapy and immunology were added.

The multidisciplinary concept developed at M. D. Anderson became the model for numerous other cancer programs both in the U.S. and abroad. In 1972, M. D. Anderson was designated one of the first three comprehensive cancer centers in the United States under terms of the National Cancer Act. Dr. Clark also traveled around the world helping other countries establish cancer centers.

Among major national appointments, Dr. Clark served from 1972-77 as the senior scientist on the President's Cancer Panel that was created to oversee implementation of the National Cancer Act. He also served as national president of the American Cancer Society in 1976-77.

Probably no other cancer specialist worked longer-or more persuasively-to advance cancer control throughout the world than Dr. Clark. He chaired the Committee on International Collaborative Activities, a group formed by the International Union Against Cancer and also chaired the national organizing committee for the Tenth International Cancer Congress, which attracted more than 6,000 physicians and scientists from around the world to Houston in 1970. Dr. Clark helped establish the International Cancer Patient Data Exchange System, an international directory of oncologists and cancer researchers and an international fellowship program for physicians.

Dr. Clark knew the value of communication and established M. D. Anderson as a center for lay and professional education. He originated The Book of Health, an encyclopedia for the lay public, and established The Cancer Bulletin, a journal for physicians that is now distributed bimonthly to more than 30,000 physicians around the world. He also wrote or co-authored more than 300 scientific articles.

Dr. Clark also is credited with helping bring The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and School of Public Health to Houston, as well as a new UT medical school. When he retired as M. D. Anderson's president in 1978, Dr. Clark had served as chief administrator of a University of Texas institution longer than anyone in the University's history. In 1983, the UT System Board of Regents waived traditional UT System rules and named the outpatient clinic facility at M. D. Anderson-which Dr. Clark had helped plan-the R. Lee Clark Clinic Building. Today, more than 2,400 patients a day visit that clinic.

At a memorial service attended by guests from around the country, speakers remembered the human side of Dr. Clark. He was remembered for challenging staff members to wrestling matches in the hospital's small rehabilitation room, for raising tomatoes on the roof of the hospital, and for his love of hunting and ranching on his Central Texas Ranch.

He also was remembered for the way in which he "made all employees feel like part of his family" and for his driving concern for patients.

"It wasn't just cancer we were treating, it was patients with cancer," recalled long-time surgical colleague Dr. Richard G. Martin.

Upon his death, tributes to Dr. Clark came from all over the world, including ones from former President George Bush and Texas Governor Ann Richards. But perhaps the best tribute to him remains one that was made many years ago by former Texas Governor Allan Shivers: "The value of his devoted service to the University, to the people of Texas and to the world is priceless."