First Leader


Dr. Arnoldus Goudsmit always had a reputation among his colleagues for being willing to look at a new approach. As an internist in Youngstown, Ohio, in the 1950s, he was the first physician there to use nitrogen mustard for a patient with cancer. "A well known medical institution had given up on her, but she lived for a long time," he recalls with satisfaction. This patient owed a debt of gratitude to Dr. Goudsmit, and so does ASCO, as he is considered to be the force behind the founding of the Society.

A native of Amsterdam, where he earned his medical degree in 1931, Dr. Goudsmit and his wife, Hellen C. Menko, a chemist, arrived in the U.S. in 1933. He earned a PhD in Biochemistry at Cornell (1936) and studied internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic, which he describes as "quite a superior place to train." During World War II, he was a medical officer at a 1,000- bed hospital in Iwo Jima. At the end of his career, he served as Chief of Surgical Oncology at the VA Hospital in Minneapolis.

"I've always been involved in advances in medicine," Dr. Goudsmit reflects. A lifelong interest in both research and clinical medicine led him to courses and seminars that might deepen his knowledge of cancer or cancer studies. Midcentury cancer organizations were oriented toward pathology and research; Dr. Goudsmit wished there was a group for clinically oriented oncologists. Over several years, he met people at seminars who shared his increasing belief "that doctors who wanted to take care of patients in a medical manner with cancer chemotherapy agents would also like to get together to see what we can do," he remembers.

"He and other colleagues recognized there was a need for emphasis on the clinical side of oncology," notes B. J. Kennedy, MD, a Past President of ASCO, adding, "Certainly the existence and success of the Society demonstrates that." The establishment of ASCO was also important, says Dr. Kennedy, because of the leading role the Society had in making medical oncology a subspecialty of medicine. Certification in the subspecialty of medical oncology was approved by the American Board of Medical Specialties in 1972.

Dr. Kennedy was one of 134 physicians who received an invitation to join ASCO, and one of the 90 who accepted "founding membership" outright. The invitations had been sent out by Dr. Goudsmit and six other physicians who referred to themselves as "chemotherapists." The seven met in April 1963 to discuss their "common concern for the patient with cancer." At the formal organizing meeting a year later, Dr. Goudsmit told the founding members of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, "We share a frequently mentioned misgiving about starting another medical organization. We are persuaded, however, that no existing organization is structurally or historically geared to serve what we have conceived as desirable ends and goals." ASCO owes its current success to the vision of Dr. Goudsmit and his colleagues, who outlined six activities for the fledgling Society (see box below). These activities remain the core of ASCO's mission and programs.

Dr. Goudsmit credits his involvement with other organizations for helping him to found ASCO. When the American Society of Internal Medicine was established on a state basis in the 1950s, he was the Ohio chapter's first president. "I had a little bit of organizing experience through the Society, and also through my church. If it hadn't been for those, I never would have been able to help organize ASCO. Though it has nothing to do with religion, the psychological aspect of organizing a group has analogies: you go ahead and do it and hope it's going to work," he comments.

Dr. Goudsmit is both impressed and dismayed by developments in his field. "It's a miracle in a way that there are so many more oncologists than there were 40 years ago--yet the difference in the death rate from cancer in 1964 versus 2000 is small," he says. "In 1964, there was great hope for a few drugs that would do something for cancer, and then a few more.... we're not doing much better than we were 35 or 40 years ago." Improvements, he says, have come less from new and better cancer drugs than from other factors, such as earlier diagnosis of prostate cancer, mammography, and decreases in smoking. Still in occasional contact with ASCO's other surviving founders, Dr. Goudsmit confides, "When we see each other, we shake our heads and say, 'we're trying,' " adding that practicing physicians "need a certain amount of optimism to help get results."

Two decades into retirement, the active, articulate nonagenarian has four daughters, nine grandchildren, and a 16th great-grandchild due this summer. Graduation ceremonies in various locales cram his spring calendar, which is fine with Dr. Goudsmit, who calls himself "a traveling guy" in his slight Dutch accent. Recent trips have included Fiji, Australia, and New Zealand; France and Spain; Singapore and Bali; and a visit with a niece in Israel. He misses his wife, who he lost in 1998. "She was a great support throughout my life and professional career," he says.

When at home in Pittsford, NY, he often lunches at or walks along the nearby Erie Canal and attends meetings at the University of Rochester Medical School, "out of interest." He adds, "They know I started ASCO, so I'm welcome there." Dr. Goudsmit also goes to occasional Mayo Clinic meetings or ASCO events in New York City.

Over a long career and an active life, he takes particular pride in his part in founding ASCO. "There has been an enormous amount of improvement in medical care: people live to be older. I take about a dozen pills, but I'm still here to talk about it. Now, we hope to do better than we have been in terms of curing cancer."

The road to that cure was begun more than 35 years ago when Dr. Arnoldus Goudsmit told fewer than 100 physicians, "We believe that a society of clinical oncology, as sketched, when operative, has the potential of becoming the means for advancing and disseminating medical knowledge and contributing greatly to the improved diagnosis, treatment, well-being, and longevity of hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens with neoplastic diseases and to aid in their prevention in many others."


It occurred to us that a new Society of Clinical Oncology might, among others, engage in activities such as

1. Provide a forum, a meeting ground, a means for formal and informal communication and mutual education for and among clinically oriented physicians with special interest, knowledge, training, and commitment in the field of human neoplastic disease.

2. Provide physicians with proper professional educational background material and opportunities to facilitate their own improved management of patients with neoplastic disease, as well as enhance their appreciation of the field.

3. Sponsor or cosponsor the publication of monographs, books, and/or articles on subjects of Clinical Oncology. Communications of potential pertinence to Clinical Oncologists tend to find their way to such a great variety and number of periodicals as to make it virtually impossible to keep fully abreast.

4. Collaborate with other medical and research organizations--national and otherwise--with a view of enhancing professional education in the area of diagnosis and treatment of patients with neoplastic disease.

5. Initiate, coordinate, and cooperate in projects of investigation of human neoplastic disease; assist and encourage the development of professional personnel to be active in these areas, with particular emphasis upon the importance of the study and treatment of the patient as a total person.

6. Provide a corporate framework for the pursuits of these and related activities.

Many of these articles appear on the publication's website, which are often password-protected or members-only. For your convenience, I've gathered them on my own website.