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Celebration of a Legacy

Donald Pinkel, MD: Celebration of a Legacy

St. Jude pays homage to its first director by dedicating the Donald P. Pinkel, MD, Research Tower.

By Elizabeth Jane Walker

Donald Pinkel

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.

Donald Pinkel and James Downing

Donald Pinkel, MD (left), discusses the hospital’s progress with current president and chief executive officer, James R. Downing, MD.

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 because of what Dr. Pinkel accomplished on this campus—because of his leadership, because of the people he recruited—that St. Jude exists today.

James R. Downing, MD, St. Jude president and chief executive officer

Science plus compassion

At St. Jude, Pinkel created a culture of great science, designing basic research programs and innovative clinical trials that systematically built upon incremental successes. Under his leadership, the survival rate for acute lymphoblastic leukemia rose from 4 percent to 50 percent within a decade. Today, that survival rate is nearly 95 percent, with quality-of-life measures rising in tandem with survival.

As a passionate advocate for children, Pinkel laid the groundwork for St. Jude to flourish. Always, he coupled science with compassion. Early in his tenure, Pinkel noticed that many of the patients from low-income areas were malnourished, which hindered their ability to survive treatment. As a result, Pinkel created a program that developed into the federally funded Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

“Dr. Pinkel dared to dream big,” says James R. Downing, MD, St. Jude president and chief executive officer. “He dreamed big in partnership with hospital founder Danny Thomas and with the early leaders of this organization.

The Donald P. Pinkel, MD, Research Tower houses a range of scientific programs that make new discoveries possible. 

Donald Pinkel examines samples in a microscope.

Pinkel’s “Total Therapy” studies revolutionized the treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Each subsequent trial has built upon knowledge gleaned from preceding studies. Learn about the Total Therapy Study 17.


“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.” 

Video of the work done by Donald Pinkel at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Dr. Pinkel’s legacy, from first CEO and director to the first successful cancer treatment that is still used today.

Donald Pinkel, MD, named the first CEO and director of St. Jude, left a legacy of hope to patients suffering from cancer. His therapy, called Total Therapy, was revolutionary at the time, but was the first treatment to establish a cure rate for children. Total Therapy is being used today, and inspires us to innovate and never stop fighting until no child dies in the dawn of life.

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