When Donald Pinkel was a youngster, he provoked more than his fair share of sleepless nights and parental concern.
What, his parents wondered, would become of their little boy with the shining blue eyes and the incandescent intellect?
“My mother and father had seven children, but I was their problem,” recalls Pinkel, decades later.
Every Friday night, his parents took him to St. Michael’s church in downtown Buffalo, New York, where they said a novena to St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes.
“They prayed for me to turn out as a real person, and not just a problem,” Pinkel explains, with a wry smile.
Ironically, this brilliant young man would one day help found a hospital named after that saint. As the first director of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Pinkel would set a scientific trajectory for curing a disease once considered universally fatal. In the process, this one-time “problem child” would save the lives of countless children around the world.
A soaring testament to greatness
On a mild March day in 2017, the St. Jude Board of Governors and the hospital’s administration named the campus’ tallest building in honor of Pinkel. As the 90-year-old honoree watched the event online from his home in California, people from across the nation gathered in Memphis to celebrate his legacy.
The Donald P. Pinkel, MD, Research Tower soars above the campus as a testament to one man who dared to take a chance on a fledgling hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. More than 50 years ago, Pinkel was criticized by many in the medical community for pursuing a cure for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which was assumed to be incurable.
“I was told I was throwing away my career,” Pinkel recalls of his early days at St. Jude. “I said, ‘Well, it’s a good way to throw it away.’”
A place for hopeful causes
When Pinkel pulled his station wagon onto campus in November of 1961, he beheld an edifice of concrete, scaffolding and mud. The building’s only completed room was his office—from which dangled a solitary phone line and an electrical cable.
As the hospital’s first employee, Pinkel immediately set about recruiting researchers and clinicians to join him in a quixotic quest to find cures for children with pediatric cancer and other life-threatening diseases.
“We are here for a hopeful cause, not hopeless,” Pinkel told the scientists he recruited. “We can do it.”
“It’s an honor to dedicate a building in his name and to never let that legacy disappear,” Downing continued. “His legacy has to be what pushes us forward. We continue to be a place where great science is melded with great humanity. We care for patients and their families as they enter the most difficult journeys they could ever imagine, and we walk with them side by side throughout those journeys. We owe a real debt of gratitude to the work that Dr. Pinkel accomplished here.”
From Promise, Summer 2017