Making Cancer History: Disease and Discovery at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center (review)
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Reviewed by
James S. Olson. Making Cancer History: Disease and Discovery at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. xiv + 369 pp. Ill. $35.00 (ISBN-10: 0-8018-9056-X, ISBN-13: 978-0-8018-9056-7).

In Making Cancer History, Olson deftly marries the personal and professional, opening and closing the volume with his own experiences with cancer treatment at a major research center. A repeated cancer sufferer and survivor, Olson is candid in his storytelling. The inclusion of his tale allows for other patient narratives to follow. We learn of care at M.D. Anderson through a variety of individuals: his colleagues at Sam Houston State University, star athletes struck by cancer at the top of their game, and members of the hospital's staff who received cancer diagnoses at their home institution. Olson introduces us to many patients who have lost their battle with cancer but uses their stories to illustrate landmark developments in screening, diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation. The narratives, when paired with oral histories and a rich collection of primary sources held in the institutional archives, provide a solid foundation for the book. [End Page 160]

The monograph is organized chronologically, with most chapters covering about five years of the institution's history. However, Olson adds additional layers of organization. The story is shaped in broader strokes by the institution's directors and their leadership styles, research targets, and vision. The years under R. Lee Clark, who laid the "institutional scaffolding for the institution's success," and John Mendelsohn, an expansive thinker who sought to spread the work of M.D. Anderson far outside the borders of Texas, add complexity and personality. Olson often adopts a top-down approach, but he also attends to developments and disagreements occurring on a smaller scale—within the halls, offices, and conference rooms at M.D. Anderson—also giving the reader a fine-grained view of the issues on the ground. This is an invaluable perspective possible only by combing through archival collections and speaking to the actors personally. However, the book is at its best when Olson seats the activities at M.D. Anderson within the context of broader trends in the field of cancer research and treatment.

A fine example of these interwoven narratives is chapter 7, "The Summit, 1970-1971." A defining moment in M.D. Anderson's history occurred when R. Lee Clark and his staff hosted the Tenth International Cancer Congress in Houston. Olson's description of "The Summit" is particularly vivid. The event highlighted Clark's role as an ambassador yet displayed the research center's firm Texas roots and culture; it marked the status the institution had achieved in its first decades yet exposed underdeveloped programs. And in the chapter's final pages, the reader learns of a fundamental shift taking place in cancer research at the time. By the conclusion of the conference, the stage was set for new theories and methods of investigation.

The latter chapters are more uneven in structure and content. In attempting to be inclusive, Olson lists the deaths of noted M.D. Anderson physicians and personnel, outlines new drugs and treatment modalities, and recounts construction projects that expanded the campus and increased the institution's capacity to meet patients' needs. Such paragraphs effectively streamline the text, while resulting in dense sections that the reader may be tempted to skim over.

Several other elements, however, draw readers back into the story. As noted above, patient narratives lend poignancy to the story of institution building. Olson also explains scientific concepts clearly, making the technical quite understandable for the general reader. And, overall, Olson tells a story of success and growth at M.D. Anderson but also leaves room for obstacles and failures. The shadow of racism and restrictions on women's roles colored the hospital's activities for decades. At times, infighting between specialties affected patient care. The politics of funding and the federal war on cancer influenced the institution's activities and scientists' research programs. Many of the events recounted by Olson will be familiar to scholars well versed in histories of cancer published in the...