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
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
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
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.
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