Rose Ruth Ellison, MD

By Carol Milano





ASCO's first woman president thinks her gender was never specifically noted; changes in the field were the key issues.

If few women became doctors in the 1940s, Rose Ruth Ellison was not aware of it. "I went to Barnard, where no one ever considered what you did or didn"t do because you were female," reflects the native New Yorker, who completed her chemistry degree in 1943.

Torn between medical school and a doctorate in chemistry, she spent 18 months as a lab technician at Rockefeller Institute before enrolling in Columbia University's College of Physicians & Surgeons. After an internship/ residency in medicine, she chose hematology for further study. Her experience at Downstate Medical Center proved so absorbing that she applied for further training at an institution where she would see more patients with leukemia, lymphoma, and a variety of solid tumors.

Joining the staff at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) after her two-year fellowship, Dr. Ellison was immersed in clinical chemotherapy during its earliest days, working alongside Dr. Joseph Burchenal, Dr. David Karnofsky, and other pioneers. C. P. Rhodes, MD, then the head of the Sloan-Kettering Institute, believed that abnormal cancer cells could be killed without irreparably damaging normal cells--a revolutionary concept in 1951. "Those were exciting days, though very few agents had as yet reached clinical trials, Dr. Ellison points out.

Few methods of chemotherapy other than alkylating agents were then available; the efficacy of methotrexate in childhood leukemia had only recently been established. "We did the initial clinical work on a new compound, 6-mercaptopurine (6MP), then worked on related compounds, demonstrating their effectiveness in AML and ALL," she recounts. At a full-day conference at MSKCC, a small group of hematologists were introduced to 6MP through slides and case reports demonstrating that this single drug could bring both objective and subjective improvement.

In the 1950s, acute leukemia was a fatal disease. Early chemotherapy lengthened lives by only a few months in children and by even less time in adults. "It was wonderful to see the effects of 6MP, with complete remission in many children, and even some adults. As more agents were developed, the idea of combination chemotherapy, based on experience in microbiologic systems, replaced most single-drug chemo," reports Dr. Ellison. During her 11 years at MSKCC, many drugs now used in combination treatment were clinically studied on patients under the care of her and her colleagues.

When her husband Solon was offered an excellent opportunity to start a new research and training program in basic science at the School of Dentistry of SUNY/Buffalo in 1962, Dr. Ellison joined the chemotherapy group in Medicine at Roswell Park Memorial Institute. There, she worked with Dr. James Holland and found Buffalo to be a wonderful place to raise her two children, who had been born in 1953 and 1955.

During 16 gratifying years in upstate New York, she tested new drugs and combinations on patients with myeloma, leukemia, lymphoma, or solid tumors. "Multi-institutional, multidisciplinary cooperative studies grew in size and scope. We studied cytosine arabinonide and daunorubicin, defining dosages," she notes, adding that these potentially toxic drugs have become significant in standard treatment for leukemia and other malignant diseases.

After a decade at Roswell Park, Dr. Ellison continued her work, along with added teaching activity, as head of the Oncology Division in the Department of Medicine at SUNY/Buffalo. In 1978, she returned to Columbia University to head the Department of Medicine's Division of Oncology. While in Buffalo, she became involved with ASCO as soon as she learned of it. "Going to the Annual Meeting was the big event each year, to hear what was going on, 11 she smiles. "We all were friends, accustomed to working with and talking to each other." She recalls that when she was nominated for President in 1974, [there were] roughly 700 members as I started my term, and nearly 800 when it was over. At the end of the year, I gave a very informal talk, more humorous than scientific, stressing the multidisciplinary approach. In another year or two, formal talks became standard."

ASCO's first female President thinks her gender was never specifically noted; changes in the field were the key issues. "By the late '70s, oncology took a tremendous leap in knowledge and interest. The potential for different combinations of surgery/radiation therapy/chemo-therapy needed formal development. We had to convert people to the idea that this was a scientific discipline, not limited to hematology and not just a training camp for radiation therapists."

Retired since 1989, Dr. Ellison feels that today, "Cancer therapy has grown far more complex. Significant technological advances have changed the character of diagnosis and therapy. The impact of molecular biology is evident. Clinically, the participation of many disciplines remains essential."

Now living in Albuquerque, she paints hard-edged, brightly-colored abstract artwork, which has appeared in many juried shows. "I'm having fun," says Rose Ruth Ellison.


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