McArdle Blog L7 ~ 8/1/2014
Looking back...looking forward
75 years of cancer research at UW-Madison
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” I couldn’t help but think of this quote made popular by Sir Isaac Newton as I left a riveting community talk by Dr. Roz Boutwell, Professor Emeritus of Oncology at the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research.
Dr. Boutwell had been talking about the early days of McArdle Laboratory and how a “core” group of individuals had played key roles in establishing the first cancer research program at the University of Wisconsin; a program which had its humble beginnings 75 years ago in 1939, and today is recognized around the world as a leading center for basic cancer research.
What I found remarkable about this talk was 97-year-old Dr. Boutwell himself. Not only is he still quite energetic and incredibly sharp-minded but, as his age suggests, he was actually part of the “core” group of academics he was talking about!
The “core” group of scientists was staunchly dedicated to the goal of initiating and developing a strong cancer research program at a time when there was very little support and funding. To Dr. Boutwell the word “core” meant “heart” and he spent the majority of his talk focusing on how the incredible persistence and determination that this “core” group of academics had were instrumental in building a strong cancer research program from its very foundation.
As he introduced the “core” group, Dr. Boutwell started by talking about Dr. Harold P. Rusch. Dr. Rusch was born in Merrill, Wisconsin in 1908 and obtained his college and medical degrees from the University of Wisconsin (UW). He became the first Director of the McArdle Laboratory and was an influential motivator in establishing a cancer research program in Wisconsin.
Dr. Rusch spearheaded the building of a facility on the UW campus to house laboratories solely devoted to cancer research. This building, the first McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research, was made possible in part by funds bequeathed by Michael W. McArdle, an attorney and entrepreneur from Door County, Wisconsin, who before his passing from cancer in 1935, had requested that his wealth be directed towards promoting cancer research in Wisconsin.
Dr. Boutwell described Dr. Rusch as being an optimistic, energetic, and easily approachable leader who was willing to talk with everybody. Having received his PhD from the Department of Physiology, he became interested in cancer and ultimately in developing the first cancer research program at the UW campus. He believed that the field of biochemistry could reveal many of the unknowns of cancer and hoped to be able to “look” inside a cell to visualize the mechanisms involved.
Dr. Rusch, being the first Director of McArdle, was responsible for successfully recruiting many strong scholars to serve as faculty in the program. These early faculty members proved to be outstanding scholars in their own right and thus comprised the rest of the “core” group that would propel McArdle forward in cancer research.
Dr. Rusch’s first faculty recruit was Dr. Van R. Potter. Dr. Potter received his undergraduate degree from the South Dakota State College and received his PhD at UW. In his book “Something Attempted, Something Done,” Dr. Rusch describes Dr. Potter as having “an unusually fertile mind, and that together with his untiring energy and enthusiasm place him among the very best in the field”. Dr. Potter’s early research interest was in comparing enzyme activities in normal and cancerous tissues, and according to Dr. Rusch, this research “was to have a major influence on [at least] three future Nobel Prize winners” (Dr. Albert Claude, Dr. George Palade and Dr. Gunter Blobel).
Dr. Boutwell emphasized that it was Drs. Rusch and Potter that made up the “heart” of the “core” group. Though their specific research interests didn’t necessarily overlap, they communicated often about the workings of their respective laboratories.
Dr. Rusch and Dr. Potter quickly understood that although they were the first, and for a short time, the only project leaders present in the new program, by working together they could establish a foundation for cancer research that would be appealing to new faculty recruits who shared their goals.
The next two recruits of the fledgling program were James and Elizabeth Miller who joined in 1943 and 1945 respectively after completing their graduate training with Dr. Carl Baumann at UW-Madison.
Dr. James Miller, or “Jim” as he was known by his colleagues, was brought in for his expertise in chemical carcinogenesis and Dr. Elizabeth Miller, or “Betty” as she was more affectionately known in the department, was sought after for her training in nutritional carcinogenesis. While at McArdle, together they published seminal work that Dr. Rusch describes as “classic in its field”. Dr. Rusch states that “[James and Elizabeth] have added more to our basic understanding about how chemical carcinogens induce cancer than anyone else in the world.”
We pause here, in the year of 1945, with the fledgling McArdle Laboratory just starting to take wing. In the next post we will continue to talk about Drs. James and Elizabeth Miller and their seminal and pioneering work in the field of chemical carcinogenesis and introduce other members of the “core” group including Dr. Boutwell himself.
~Alex Torres Law
(Photos courtesy of Bette Sheehan)