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ASCO Remembers Pediatric Oncology Pioneer Dr. Donald P. Pinkel

Mar 22, 2022

ASCO is saddened by the passing of Donald P. Pinkel, MD, on March 9, 2022, at age 95. He will be remembered as the first clinician to cure acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in pediatric patients.

Like the patron saint of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which he led as its first CEO and founding director, Dr. Pinkel devoted his life to what others considered hopeless causes in pediatric medicine.

Born in Buffalo, New York, on September 7, 1926, Dr. Pinkel began his medical training during World War II as a medical officer in the United States Navy. Returning home, he finished his pre-medical studies at Canisius College. He received his medical degree at the University at Buffalo in 1951 and completed his residency at Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo in 1954.

But he contracted polio that same year, while on active duty as a reserve medical officer at the U.S. Army Hospital at Fort Devens, Massachusetts; he was left temporarily paralyzed. He worked briefly under the mentorship of Sidney Farber, MD, and as head of pediatrics at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. When it was recommended that he transfer to a warmer climate due to his health, he accepted the CEO and director position at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

At St. Jude, not only did Dr. Pinkel’s health improve, he also started to focus on treating patients with pediatric ALL, which was considered incurable in the 1960s. At Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Dr. Pinkel had experimented with combination therapies as treatment for ALL, but these therapies often led to symptomatic leukemia involvement of the central nervous system, far from curing these patients.

In 1967, however, Dr. Pinkel and his colleagues at St. Jude began experimenting with a new treatment called total therapy. Patients on what would come to be called the Total Therapy Study V were treated with prednisone and vincristine. After they went into remission, Dr. Pinkel would use cranial irradiation to prevent meningeal relapse. For the next 2 to 3 years, patients would continue to be treated with chemotherapy to ensure they remained in remission.

When the results of the study were released in 1970, it was revealed that 50% of the patients who had been given total therapy were in remission, even 2 to 3 years after treatment. Dr. Pinkel had not only developed the first cure for ALL—one that is still used today—but had cured cancer for the first time using only cancer drugs.  

New advances in infection control, safer blood transfusions, and newer cancer drugs have slightly changed Dr. Pinkel’s total therapy. For example, patients no longer receive cranial irradiation. But the majority of the therapy, now boasting a survival rate of almost 90%, remains the same.

Dr. Pinkel didn’t stop there.

At St. Jude, Dr. Pinkel noticed that several of his patients, both women and children, were malnourished. Dr. Pinkel conducted studies on the effects of protein and calorie malnutrition, especially in his pediatric patients, which led him to develop a supplemental feeding program. Dr. Pinkel’s program was the inspiration behind the federal assistance program called Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

For the hope he provided to children with cancer and their families, he was internationally recognized with the Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award, the Charles F. Kettering Prize for Cancer Research from the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation, and the Medal of Honor from the American Cancer Society. Dr. Pinkel’s work as a clinician and researcher was featured in the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, and in the 2015 PBS documentary Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies.

In 1978, ASCO honored Dr. Pinkel with the David A. Karnofsky Memorial Award and Lecture. During the lecture, Dr. Pinkel presciently noted a continued challenge in the treatment of ALL, especially relevant to ASCO’s ongoing work in equity, diversity, and inclusion: “To develop treatment that is not only specific and effective, but also simple, safe, and cheap so that all the world’s children can benefit from our science.”

Read more about Dr. Pinkel’s life and legacy in a remembrance by Mary Pinkel, his daughter, published in The Cancer Letter; a tribute from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; and an obituary in the New York Times.


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