Donald Pinkel, medical researcher who found a treatment for childhood leukemia, dies at 95

He was 95 when he died March 9 at his home in San Luis Obispo, Calif. St. Jude announced his death but did not cite a specific cause.

When Dr. Pinkel entered medicine in the early 1950s, his specialty of pediatric oncology — cancer in children — was one of the most bleak and hopeless in the field. The most prevalent form of the disease in children was acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a cancer of the blood with a five-year survival rate of only 4 percent.

As a young practitioner, Dr. Pinkel had contracted polio while treating children on a military base in Massachusetts. He was paralyzed for a time, had to learn how to walk and, after developing a persistent case of pneumonia, decided to move away from the cold winters of the Northeast.

Among those who persuaded him to go to Memphis was Danny Thomas, who was then a prominent comedian and television star. Early in his career, Thomas said he would build a shrine to St. Jude — often called by Catholics the patron saint of lost causes — if he became a success in show business. The shrine turned out to be a hospital for children.

When Dr. Pinkel arrived in Memphis, St. Jude was still under construction; his office was the only usable space.

“People thought I’d be crazy to go down there,” he told Smithsonian magazine in 2016. “It was a very chancy situation, led by this Hollywood character. One colleague told me I would be throwing away my career.”

Dr. Pinkel helped design St. Jude, insisting that there be just one cafeteria, where doctors, researchers, patients and parents could mingle. He reinforced an idea espoused by Thomas that there would be no financial expense to families seeking treatment.

“I was sometimes called a communist,” Dr. Pinkel said, “because I didn’t think children should be charged for anything. Money should not be involved at all. As a society, we should make sure they get first-class health care.”

He also received assurances that there would be no racial segregation among the patients or staff. Thomas hired a Black architect, Paul R. Williams, to design the building, and St. Jude became the first integrated children’s hospital in the South when it opened in 1962.

Dr. Pinkel did regular hospital rounds as a physician while also launching a research effort to find a treatment for childhood leukemia. Many doctors viewed Dr. Pinkel with skepticism bordering on derision.

“He thought childhood leukemia could be cured when the medical establishment did not,” James R. Downing, St. Jude’s current director and chief executive, said in an interview. “He said the medical establishment had pessimism, but he had hope.”

Some researchers considered it unethical to subject children to medical experiments, but Dr. Pinkel believed that the alternative — a 96 percent chance of death — was even worse. He conducted clinical trials on his young patients only with the approval of their parents.

“We were tired of being undertakers,” he said.

Dr. Pinkel had worked in Boston with Sidney Farber, who pioneered the use of chemotherapy to treat young leukemia patients. At St. Jude, Dr. Pinkel experimented with different drug treatments and dosages, eventually deciding to use the drugs in combination to eradicate cancer cells.

Progress was slow at first, and many patients did not survive. Dr. Pinkel struggled to keep his composure as grieving parents came to him, expressing sorrow and sometimes anger.

“Then, after they left,” Dr. Pinkel told Smithsonian, “I would fasten the door and cry my eyes out.”

He devised a treatment program called Total Therapy, which combined strong doses of chemotherapy, the introduction of drugs to the spinal column to attack cancer cells in the central nervous system, radiation therapy (later abandoned) and prolonged chemotherapy over a two- to three- year period, as the patients went into remission.

In conducted studies in the late 1960s, Dr. Pinkel succeeded in raising the five-year “cure rate” for childhood leukemia patients to 50 percent — an unheard-of achievement that some medical professionals doubted could be true. Dr. Pinkel published a study on his findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1971.

“That was the first paper in which I was able to use the word ‘cure,’ ” he later said.

One skeptic, Alvin Mauer, called Dr. Pinkel a fraud. But after a visit to St. Jude, he was so won over that he succeeded Dr. Pinkel as the hospital’s director.

In the years since Dr. Pinkel’s early experiments, his concept of Total Therapy has been widely adopted in medicine. Treatment of childhood leukemia has improved to the point that patients now have a five-year survival rate of 94 percent.

“Donald Pinkel really was the man who cured childhood leukemia,” said Downing, who is a cancer researcher as well as St. Jude’s director. Pinkel was a giant in medicine. He was never afraid to tackle the hardest problem, and he knew that we, as humans, could solve that problem.”

Donald Paul Pinkel was born Sept. 7, 1926, in Buffalo. His father was a hardware salesman, and his mother was a homemaker with seven children.

Dr. Pinkel went to Mass with his parents and later recalled that they often prayed to St. Jude because, as he put it, “My mother and father had seven children, but I was their problem.”

While serving in the Navy during World War II, he studied at Cornell University and took an interest in biology and science. After the war, he returned to Buffalo, graduating in 1947 from Canisius College and, in 1951, from medical school at the University of Buffalo (now part of the State University of New York system).

He served in the Army Medical Corps as a pediatrician and developed polio in 1954, one year before Jonas Salk’s vaccine became widely available. It took more than a year for Dr. Pinkel to regain his ability to walk.

After doing cancer research in Boston, I have moved back to Buffalo to lead the pediatrics department at what is now the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, the country’s oldest cancer research institute. When the lingering effects of polio led to pneumonia and other complications, Dr. Pinkel began to look for a warmer climate.

“What it did was instill in him a sense of empathy,” Downing said of Dr. Pinkel’s experience with polio. “He knew what it was to have a lifetime of being sick.”

In addition to his research on childhood leukemia at St. Jude, Dr. Pinkel led efforts to study sickle-cell disorders and other cancers and diseases. He also observed that the health of children from poorer environments, particularly African American children, was often compromised by a poor diet. He began a nutritional plan at St. Jude that became a model for the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

Dr. Pinkel left St. Jude in 1973 and worked, over the next two decades, at hospitals and medical schools in Wisconsin, California, Pennsylvania and Texas. He retired from medicine in 1994 and later settled in San Luis Obispo, where he taught biology at California Polytechnic State University until he was 89.

His first marriage, to Marita Donovan, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of more than 40 years, Cathryn Howarth, a pediatric oncologist; nine children; to sister; 16 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. A son, Christopher Pinkel, died in 2019.

In 1972, Dr. Pinkel was one of several scientists to receive the Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research. He has also received the Charles F. Kettering Prize for Cancer Research and numerous other honors. In 2017, the tallest building at St. Jude — which now has a 100-acre campus, 5,500 employees and a $1.2 billion annual budget — was named in Dr. Pinkel’s honor.

“What made me want to come to St. Jude,” he said at the time, “was that we had the opportunity to take science and to meld it with great humanity.”

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