Imagining the World’s First Cancer Center

Roswell Park
Monday, February 22, 2016 - 4:06pm

Although Dr. Roswell Park treated patients with many different conditions, he felt especially challenged by cancer. It “kills thousands of people annually in this State…but has so far baffled the ingenuity and the ceaseless efforts of individuals for centuries,” he wrote.

After coming to Buffalo in 1883 to serve as chairman of the University of Buffalo Medical School, Dr. Park began to focus more intently on the mystery of cancer. He realized that well-organized scientific research was rapidly conquering some of the most feared diseases of his time, including cholera, tetanus, diphtheria, and typhoid fever.

As deaths from those diseases fell, cancer started to climb the list as a leading cause of death in the U.S. By the end of the 19th century, it claimed more lives than smallpox, typhoid, and tuberculosis combined. Dr. Park predicted that the number of cancer cases would continue to rise around the world — and he was right.

Park wanted to create an institute dedicated solely to the study of cancer and equipped with modern tools to understand and control it: “The knowledge and skill of the pathologist, the biologist, the chemist, and the physician must be combined…and the surgeons must join actively in the cooperative work in one dedicated setting,” he said.

New York State Governor Frank S. Black

With that model in mind, in 1897 he traveled to Albany to meet with Governor Frank S. Black and members of the New York State Legislature. He asked them for $10,000 to establish a cancer research laboratory at the University of Buffalo School of Medicine. Both houses of the legislature passed the bill, but Gov. Black shot it down with a veto. “I cannot approve a proposed policy which requires the state to engage in the investigation of the causes of various diseases…” he declared.

Try, try again

Dr. Park did not give up. The following year he rallied the power of the press with the support of Buffalo Evening News Editor Edward H. Butler and other editors around the state. Under pressure in an election year, Gov. Black finally saw the light, approving an act of the New York State Legislature that provided a $10,000 grant for “faculty [and] the equipment and maintenance of a laboratory to be devoted to an investigation into the causes, nature, mortality rate and treatment of cancer.” Named the New York State Pathological Laboratory of the University of Buffalo, the institute was housed in the U.B. Medical School on High Street. 

Five years after the institute opened its doors, William Osler, MD, founder of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, wrote to Dr. Park, “…It is surprising how little systematic work on cancer has been undertaken in this country. So far as I know, the only laboratory devoted to it is that organized by you and supported by the New York State Government.”

“There is no work more needed in the world than to discover the cause of cancer,” added W. W. Kean, Professor of Surgery at Jefferson Medical College in New Jersey. “Dr. Park has done more work and better work than any other person in America in this direction.”

Stay tuned to RPCI Cancer Talk in the months ahead as we explore two other milestones in the life of Dr. Roswell Park:

  • The 1901 Pan-American Exposition, for which Dr. Park served as Medical Director; and
  • The assassination of President William McKinley.

Over the years, Roswell Park Cancer Institute (RPCI) has operated as:

  • The University of Buffalo Pathological Laboratory (1898)
  • The Gratwick Research Laboratory (1900)
  • The State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases (1912)
  • Roswell Park Memorial Institute (1946)
  • Roswell Park Cancer Institute (1992)