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In Memoriam: ASCO Remembers Former President Emil “Tom” Frei III, MD

May 03, 2013

It is with great sadness that ASCO announces that Emil “Tom” Frei III, MD, former ASCO President, died on Tuesday, April 30, at the age of 89. Dr. Frei was one of the world’s foremost oncologists and a leading researcher in cancer treatment. Working closely with his colleagues Drs. Emil Freireich—whose similar name was the reason Dr. Frei adopted the nickname “Tom”—and James F. Holland, Dr. Frei became known as “the father of combination chemotherapy.” As part of a team invited to conduct clinical research in the Chemotherapy Program of the National Cancer Institute in the late 1950s, they demonstrated that treatment with multiple chemotherapy agents could produce lasting remissions in children with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL).

At the time, this disease was uniformly fatal, and single chemotherapy drugs could only bring it into temporary remission. This concept of combination chemotherapy was a breakthrough in oncology and stands today as a cornerstone of cancer treatment.

Dr. Frei was a strong proponent of collaborative clinical research and was one of the founders of the first cooperative group in the United States, the Cancer and Leukemia Group B (CALGB). He served as its Chair for 16 years.  Working with Drs. Holland and C. Gordon Zubrod, he published the country’s first collaborative oncology paper, “A Comparative Study of Two Regimens of Combination Chemotherapy in Acute Leukemia.” With Dr. Holland, Dr. Frei published the first comprehensive textbook devoted to medical oncology, Cancer Medicine, a work that continues to be one of the standard texts of the oncology field.

Dr. Frei was a part of a group of oncology leaders who petitioned the American Board of Internal Medicine to recognize medical oncology as an academic/intellectual/clinical area of expertise. He then became a member of the first subspecialty board in medical oncology.

In addition to his contributions to the field of oncology, Dr. Frei made a lasting impact on ASCO. He was president of ASCO from 1968 to 1969 and was honored with the David A. Karnofsky Memorial Award in 1981. Also that year, he became an instrumental figure in proposing the launch of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, announcing that it would “become an important addition to the scientific and educational functions of our Society and will serve as the official Journal of the Society.”

Most recently, Dr. Frei was Physician-in-Chief, Emeritus, at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He earned his pre-medical degree from Colgate University. He later received a medical degree from Yale University. In addition to serving in the Navy’s V-12 program during World War II, he served as a physician during the Korean War.


In addition to his leadership, Dr. Frei directed the education of more than 300 oncologists, many of whom are making their own discoveries and impact on the field. He authored or co-authored more than 500 papers in scientific and professional journals. Given the revolutionary impact of his work, he was recognized with many awards over the course of his career, including the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award; the Mary Lasker Foundation award; the Jeffrey A. Gottlieb Memorial Award; the NIH Distinguished Alumni Award; the Pollin Prize; and the AARC Lifetime Achievement Award.

Dr. Frei will also be remembered for the qualities that defined him. Dr. Robert J. Mayer, Faculty Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Stephen B. Kay Family Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, recall, “What characterized Tom was his personal optimism and energy, which stimulated generations of colleagues and young trainees and physicians to achieve what they had never believed possible.” He will be dearly missed.


Allen Lichter, MD

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