In collaboration with Donald Pinkel’s daughter, Mary Pinkel, the Cancer History Project is preserving and republishing materials from his personal archive.
The documents include acceptance remarks, personal letters, editorials, photographs, video archives, and celebrations of his life’s work. The archive’s index, as well as a conversation between Pinkel and his daughter, appear below.
Pinkel served as CEO and director of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital from its founding in 1962 until 1973. He also played an important role in the critical years in leukemia research at Roswell Park Cancer Center.
“Donald Pinkel introduced the word ‘cure’ to cancer,” said James Downing, president and CEO of St. Jude. “It was his bravery and unflinching commitment to move forward that changed everything.”
Pinkel was the subject of an in-depth profile in Smithsonian Magazine in 2016.
Pinkel is the recipient of the Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research, the Charles F. Kettering Prize for Cancer Research, and the Pollin Prize for Pediatric Research.
When Pinkel won the Charles F. Kettering prize in 1986, he received the following write-up in The Cancer Letter:
Pinkel was responsible for developing the concept of total therapy for ALL. His treatment plan included four distinct phases, with different combinations of anticancer drugs used for initial and long term therapy. He showed the importance of specific therapy to the central nervous system in combatting the disease, using radiation therapy alone and in combination with drugs injected directly into the spinal fluid. Margaret Sullivan, professor of pediatrics at M.D. Anderson, has since demonstrated that spinal fluid chemotherapy by itself is as effective as radiation had been.
One of Pinkel’s major and most controversial concepts centered on halting the chemotherapy that kept patients in remission. He felt that if they were still in remission after two or three years of chemotherapy, further maintenance therapy was not necessary. He waited until his first seven pediatric leukemia patients had been treated, taken off therapy and followed for five more years before publishing the results. Five of that group continue in good health, one drowned on a fishing trip and the other lived 14 years before dying of another disease.
Mary Pinkel interviewed her father in November 2008. What follows is an edited excerpt from their conversation.
Mary Pinkel: When you decided to specialize in pediatric cancer, did people look at you like you were quixotic?
Donald Pinkel: Yeah. (laughs) They said, “Why are you throwing away your career?”
It was felt that there was nothing you could do for childhood cancer because of the complexity of the disease and lack of understanding of its origin. It was the general feeling then that you had to know the exact cause of the disease in order to be able to do much about it. There were all kinds of theories but very little information.
I found it very sad and very challenging. [Children] were given a fatal diagnosis and sent home to die.
I felt stirred up by the fact that so many of these youngsters were abandoned. A diagnosis was made and that was the end of it. The parents and child often felt hopeless and I felt that I could get in there and at least give them some hope and palliation of the suffering.
Fortunately, in 1948 when I was still a student, it was shown that a drug—now called methotrexate, an antagonist of the vitamin folic acid—would induce complete remission of the disease in about one third to one half of children who had acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
But the remissions only lasted three to four months and [eventually] the child would die. That was the light at the end of the tunnel. But there was a lot of frustration because it was only temporary, and the drugs were very toxic.
Given the fact that it was frustrating work and so risky, why did you keep working in the field of pediatric leukemia?
DP: Well, because…no one else was. The disease was neglected, and no one was doing much in the way of research or in actual care because they were so frustrated. I felt an obligation to fill the vacuum.
[In 1954, at age 28, Pinkel contracted polio while treating patients with polio at an Army hospital in Massachusetts. Paralyzed and confined to a hospital bed for several months, he had to learn to walk again.]
While you were recovering from polio you started working at Boston Children’s Hospital with Dr. Sidney Farber. Weren’t you in a lot of pain?
DP: Yes. I had braces and crutches but improving all the time. I had excellent care in the Army and at the V.A. Because I was relatively young and otherwise healthy, I had a lot of recovery, so I was able to get down to short leg braces and a pair of canes.
I was able to get more experience [in Boston] because that was the Mecca for pediatric cancer. People came from all over the world. Dr. Farber had discovered methotrexate and they were always on the cutting edge. They had probably the number one center in the world at that time for children with leukemia.
By the spring of 1956 I was spending three quarters of my time at Boston Children’s. I was given a new drug to evaluate….it did not work well for children with leukemia, but it did work for children who had other forms of cancer. It was a breakthrough.
We also learned we could shrink down a large tumor so that you could remove it surgically. That became a standard form of therapy, a very important advance not only because of the drug being effective but also because it ushered in a whole new way of thinking about treating cancer.
Next you worked at Roswell Park?
DP: I had this income from the Army, an Army pension. But they just didn’t pay enough in Boston. I got an offer from Buffalo. Roswell Park was expanding. They’d never had pediatrics there.
I was offered a job to start a new department of pediatrics at Roswell Park Cancer Center in Buffalo. The salary was better.
What was the salary in Buffalo?
DP: They offered me $7,000 per year. The most I could get in Boston was $5,000. I said I need more than that. Mary Lasker had a fund there. Out of that fund they found another $2,000 per year. So, I went there for $9,000 a year. Not a fabulous sum for a family of six but we could get along because I had the pension. We moved back to Buffalo.
You were in Buffalo for five years?
DP: Then the winters were getting to me. Every winter I’d swear I had to get out of Buffalo. Finally, the last year we were there, I got pneumonia. I couldn’t shake it off. I was really not feeling well while I continued to work. I began looking around. It turned out that University of Colorado was interested in me.
At the same time, they got wind of me in Memphis. They were just building St. Jude Hospital. They wanted someone in childhood cancer, specifically leukemia. And there weren’t many people in the field. (Laughs.) That’s one thing about coming into a vacuum!
Denver was a very nice situation, a beautiful place, a sweetheart of an opportunity. I began thinking about it. Memphis was such a sad place medically, highly segregated, not much going on there scientifically. It would be a real challenge.
They’d had a lot of problems finding a director for St. Jude. Most people thought: number one, it’s Memphis; they didn’t want to go there. Number two; it’s a big Hollywood spectacular because it was backed by Danny Thomas and a lot of Hollywood people. And they didn’t want to get involved in that.
The disease was neglected, and no one was doing much in the way of research or in actual care because they were so frustrated. I felt an obligation to fill the vacuum.Donald Pinkel
I asked: who are the real powers behind St. Jude? They came up with Mr. Ed Barry, chairman of the board and a real rock of a man who was a great philanthropist and a great civic leader. And the other one was Michael F. Tamer, who was the head of the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities. He was doing all the fundraising that would support St. Jude, working of course with Danny Thomas.
We talked all day about our philosophies, viewpoints. Ed Barry had been trained by Jesuits like I had. We had common ground. They were liberal, amazingly so. They said there would be racial integration—a big issue for me—and that I’d have a pretty free hand.
The main motivation for me was the big vacuum, in terms of civil rights, science, and providing a service that was not being met in that part of the USA for both white and black children.
What was your greatest professional achievement?
DP: Seeing children cured of cancer and living good lives…like the patient in the book White Blood, a boy who had acute leukemia when he was two. He [grew up], went through college, double science major and got a full scholarship at a first-rate medical school.
I saw many other kids—some of whom barely survived the first couple of weeks of leukemia—and they pulled through. They’ve gone on, not only to survive but to survive with good quality of life. [But] you always have to weigh the risks of long-term damage versus the benefits. You are always sort of gambling you might say. You don’t want people just to live longer but to live well.
[In 2008, Dr. Pinkel wrote about his journey as a pediatric oncologist in White Blood, a book edited by noted British scientist, Mel Greaves. Donald Pinkel, “A Pediatrician’s Journey” White Blood (London: World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd. 2008) pages 13-46.]
Archives preserved in the Cancer History Project:
In his own words
- Oral history: Donald Pinkel: A Cancer Pioneer Reflects on His Career
- Donald Pinkel’s June 1, 1986 Kettering Prize acceptance remarks
- Donald Pinkel’s June 6, 1986 Kettering Prize remarks: Curing Children of Leukemia
- St. Jude Director Cites Poor Housing’s Toll on Children, March 28, 1971
- Personal letters: mixed reviews of Donald Pinkel’s article on Childhood Lymphocytic Leukemia
- Photo archive
- The Cancer Letter: Pinkel, Sharp, Hausen Win GM Awards for ‘86, June 13, 1986
- The Cancer Letter: Pinkel Corrects Report On ALL, April 21, 1978
Celebrating Donald Pinkel
- St. Jude: Former St. Jude CEO and Director Donald Pinkel, MD, revolutionized pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia treatment
- St. Jude: St. Jude names research tower for Donald Pinkel, M.D., in honor of his legacy of finding cures for childhood cancers
- Roswell Park: Celebrating Dr. Donald Pinkel’s Remarkable Career
- The Buffalo History Museum: Cancer Crossings Panel
- Smithsonian Magazine: Childhood Leukemia Was Practically Untreatable Until Dr. Don Pinkel and St. Jude Hospital Found a Cure,” July/August 2016
Donald Pinkel’s research highlights in childhood leukemia
- Aur RJ, Simone J, Hustu HO, Walters T, Borella L, Pratt C, Pinkel D. Central nervous system therapy and combination chemotherapy of childhood lymphocytic leukemia. Blood. 1971 Mar;37(3):272-81. PMID: 4322483.
- Pinkel D. Five-year follow-up of “total therapy” of childhood lymphocytic leukemia. JAMA. 1971 Apr 26;216(4):648-52. PMID: 5279904.
- Pinkel D, Simone J, Hustu HO, Aur RJ. Nine years’ experience with “total therapy” of childhood acute lymphocytic leukemia. Pediatrics. 1972 Aug;50(2):246-51. PMID: 4505343.