PediatricianDonald Pinkel

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After graduating high school in Buffalo, N.Y., Pinkel joined the U.S. Navy: World War II was in full swing. As part of his training, Pinkel studied at Cornell University, and became interested in biology and medicine. Once released he went back home to continue in school, getting his medical degree from the University of Buffalo, and became a pediatrician for the U.S. Army Medical Corps. There, he contracted polio after being exposed by patients. Weakened but not out, Pinkel worked with pediatric pathologist Sidney Farber, who later became known as the father of chemotherapy. With his polio, Buffalo’s climate didn’t agree with Pinkel, and actor, singer, and comedian Danny Thomas recruited him for a project he was working on: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. Dr. Pinkel took a pay cut to be the hospital’s first director and CEO when it opened in February 1962.

Danny Thomas and Dr. Pinkel at the opening of St. Jude, February 1962. (Photo: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital)

Pinkel took on research of several cancers, with most of his focus on ALL, acute lymphoblastic leukemia. ALL was a scourge for young children: it had a 96 percent mortality rate due to its drug resistance, the toxicity of drugs that did work before the cancer would relapse, its tendency to get into the brain’s meninges, and the way doctors simply assumed everyone who got ALL was going to die. That may have actually been true: Dr. Pinkel thought the other four percent of cases were actually misdiagnosed. “No one thought you were going to ‘cure’ anybody,” he said in 2016. “That was almost a forbidden word.” Yet by the time he was done with his research and designed a new treatment protocol called “Total Therapy” in 1967, ALL’s mortality rate was down to 50 percent — the first time any cancer’s mortality rate was reduced so dramatically, and all the more poignant that children were its main victim. Eventually, further research has brought the cure rate up to 90 percent.

In 1973, after spending several more years refining the treatment protocols and publishing his work, Dr. Pinkel resigned to run several other hospitals and research institutes to boost their treatment programs. Pinkel retired in 1994 — and went back to work teaching at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He meanwhile had fathered nine children. “He really is the man that cured leukemia,” says Dr. James Downing, the current president of St. Jude. Dr. Pinkel died at his home in San Luis Obispo on March 9. He was 95.

From This is True for 13 March 2022