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How did St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital evolve from Danny Thomas’ dream into a national resource that is now the world’s top treatment and research center for children with cancer? During this milestone year for St. Jude, it is appropriate to pause and reflect on how vision, passion and partnership can change the world.
Like a great orchestra, St. Jude is the product of many inspired people working together, each bringing talents that are distinct and essential to the performance, yet doing so in a way that produces something magical and greater than the sum of the parts. I have been fortunate to witness this symphony for 40 of its 50 years, first in the balcony as a student, then in the orchestra section as a faculty member, and most recently on the conductor’s stand. I have been lifted by each performance, regardless of my vantage point.
When the doors of St. Jude opened, most people thought its focus on childhood cancer was doomed to fail. Yet, a decade later St. Jude startled the medical establishment by introducing the word “cure” into the conversation about childhood cancer. At that moment, the medical world realized that something remarkable was happening in Memphis.
St. Jude represents one of the most unlikely yet powerful successes in academic medicine. If one were to pick a place to start a new biomedical research institute, Memphis in 1962 would not be near the top of the list. To launch a new “start-up” by giving away services for free would not be a business model found in any textbooks, then or today. And childhood cancers—largely considered incurable—would not have been the first choice for the focus of a new hospital. Yet Danny and his friends decided to do all of these things at once. The result was a new research hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, where no child would be turned away because of race, religion or the family’s ability to pay.
Danny’s dream was that “No child should die in the dawn of life.” This mantra, emblazoned on the name badge of every St. Jude employee, helps push the hospital forward 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 50 years later. Yet, despite the dramatic increase in survival rates, cancer remains the leading cause of death by disease in U.S. children over 1 year of age. Clearly, there is much more work to be done. Progress in our first 50 years has come from using drugs that were developed for adult cancers, not childhood cancers. Today, science and technology offer unprecedented opportunities to understand precisely what causes childhood cancers; from that will come new targets against which new medications can be developed. Our Pediatric Cancer Genome Project and our chemical biology efforts are our most recent new initiatives to build on our foundation of innovative clinical trials and cutting-edge laboratory research, and to find these new treatments for tomorrow.
St. Jude remains committed to leading this effort, so that 50 years from now we will be using medications that are less toxic and more effective in curing cancer—pushing us even closer to realizing Danny’s dream.
Reprinted from Promise Spring 2012