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A History Lesson – The “War” On Cancer

(This is an excerpt from “Doctored Results”, a new book by Ralph W. Moss, PhD – a great companion to the documentary “Second Opinion: Laetrile At Sloan-Kettering.”)

The War on Cancer

The US government had had an organized cancer research program since passage of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Act in 1937. By the late 1960s, cancer was killing almost 350,000 Americans per year. (The current figure is 580,000.) Although this program had accomplished many important things, including the identification of tobacco as a cause of lung cancer, there was a general feeling that it had not made sufficient progress in finding a cure for the disease. Considerable progress in treating pediatric leukemia had raised the hope that chemotherapy could similarly be used to treat and cure the more common tumors of adults.

The astonishing success of the Atomic Bomb project, Salk’s polio vaccine and the race to the moon had convinced many that if sufficient resources were directed towards the goal, a concerted effort could find a cure. A secondary advantage would be to close the Cold War “science gap” that had opened with the Russians’ successful launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957.

Towards this end, in 1970, the US Senate appointed a blue-ribbon National Panel of Consultants on the Conquest of Cancer, whose purpose, according to its chairman, Ralph Yarborough (D-Tex.), was:

“To recommend to Congress and to the American people what must be done to achieve cures for the major forms of cancer by 1976…” 

The committee consisted of 26 members, half of whom were laymen. Members included Laurance S. Rockefeller, its board vice chairman, Benno Schmidt and the celebrated Sloan-Kettering Institute (SKI) chemotherapist, Joseph Burchenal.

July 4, 1976 was chosen as the target date because it was to be America’s 200th birthday. In the foreword to the Consultants’ final report, Yarborough put the case for an all-out War on Cancer:

“Cancer is a disease which can be conquered. Our advances in the field of cancer research have brought us to the verge of important and exciting developments in the early detection and control of this dread disease…” 

The “advances” to which the Texas Senator alluded consisted of toxic drugs that were starting to show a real possibility of curing acute pediatric leukemia. It was no surprise that Sidney Farber, MD, of Boston, one of the pioneers of this approach, was also one of the “prime architects” of the Consultants’ report.

R. Lee Clark, MD, president of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, told Congress bluntly:

“With a billion dollars a year for ten years we could lick cancer.” 

America had spent $26 billion to land men on the moon, and the only tangible reward had been a collection of rocks and dust of interest to a few scientists. At that same time, all of the cancer scientists in the US worked on a budget of $250 million a year— less than one percent of the moon shot’s total.

It was a liberal Democrat, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), who first proposed legislation to expand cancer research by amending the Public Health Service Act. In that bipartisan era, Republicans took up the cause and on December 21, 1971, President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act launching a well-funded, full-scale attack on the “Dread Disease.”

Adopting the language of the Consultants’ report, Congress designated the Act “a national crusade to be accomplished by 1976 in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of our country….” Pres. Nixon in his State of the Union Message called for “the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon.”

The “War on Cancer” expressed the national will, but only a few understood that the science was not mature enough to make such sweeping promises. The Wall Street Journal’s science writer Jerry E. Bishop revealed the illusion at its core:

“It is highly unlikely that any group of experts can promise that cures for major forms of cancer will be achieved within five years even if appropriations for cancer research were unlimited. To do so [i.e., to make such claims] could raise high hopes among the public and result in disenchantment, as 1976 rolled around, that might do considerable harm to public support of cancer research in the long run. Yet without such dramatic promises, public enthusiasm for a major ‘assault’ on cancer that the researchers have longed for may be more difficult to arouse.”  

An underlying premise of the National Cancer Act was that the search for a cure had become bogged down in scientific red tape. What was needed, it was thought, was strong leadership, unencumbered by the niceties of protocol. Congress therefore approved creation of a three-member President’s Cancer Panel, to advise the President on how to speed progress in the war. The head of this three-member panel was Benno C. Schmidt, Sr., who was dubbed the “Cancer Czar.” This influential layman was supposed to cut through the clutter and dispatch funds to the most important projects. By doing so, the Cure could be found within a few years.

As it turned out, July 4, 1976 came and went without any notice of the NCI’s failure to deliver. At the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that July the missed target date went completely unmentioned. In fact, once the “war on cancer” was launched, its continued funding rarely became an issue. Only on five- and ten-year anniversaries did the occasional critic surface in an oped to wonder about the lack of progress. But by then the “war” had become institutionalized. NCI funding now totals over $5 billion.

Benno Charles Schmidt, Sr. (1913-1999) was a busy, productive and wealthy man. His “day job” was as managing partner of the J. H. Whitney investment firm. He was also a lawyer, a corporation director (including of CBS) and a venture capitalist. In fact, he supposedly coined the latter term. Schmidt was not born to wealth. His father was a traveling salesman who died when he was 12, and the Schmidt family survived on his mother’s salary as a secretary. His big break came when the financier John Hay “Jock” Whitney chose him as his righthand man.

After becoming Cancer Czar, he retained his position as vice chairman of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s Board of Overseers. The other Cancer Panel members were Robert A. Good, MD, PhD, the newly appointed President of Sloan-Kettering Institute, and R. Lee Clark, MD, president of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

Today, the President’s Cancer Panel has lapsed into obscurity. But for a while, it was uniquely influential and, during that time, Sloan-Kettering’s influence was unprecedented. Two of the three members on the Panel were Sloan-Kettering leaders, with direct access to the President of the United States.

Schmidt prided himself on his no-nonsense ability to assess the accuracy of scientific claims. I later sat in on a few meetings over which he presided and can report that he had a commanding presence, with caterpillar-like eyebrows whose elevation could make underlings shiver.

(this was an excerpt from “Doctored Results”, a new book by Ralph W. Moss, PhD – a great companion to the documentary “Second Opinion: Laetrile At Sloan-Kettering.”)

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