Oct 18, 2019
ASCO and the oncology community mourn the loss of a true giant in the field and are deeply saddened by the news of the passing of Bernard Fisher, MD, FASCO, on October 16, 2019. He was 101.
“Not only did Dr. Fisher revolutionize the treatment of breast and colon cancers, he also demonstrated that we could ask and answer hard questions with randomized clinical trials and that has had an impact across all of modern oncology,” said ASCO CEO Clifford A. Hudis, MD, FACP, FASCO.
Dr. Fisher’s career was closely tied to the University of Pittsburgh from the very beginning. He completed his undergraduate degree there in 1940, and earned his medical degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1943. According to the university, Dr. Fisher “joined the faculty of Pitt as its first full-time faculty member in the Department of Surgery and contributed to the development of both transplantation and vascular surgery early in his career. In 1953 he established the first Laboratory of Surgical Research at the University based on his firm belief that evidence gathered through scientific inquiry should serve as the basis for advancing patient care.” At the time of his passing, Dr. Fisher served there still as a Distinguished Professor of Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Dr. Fisher was internationally renowned for his groundbreaking work in breast cancer, which ended the practice of performing radical mastectomy, a procedure that removed the breast, chest wall muscle, and lymph nodes.
After researching the biology of tumor metastases, Dr. Fisher formulated a hypothesis that breast cancer was a systemic disease that allowed tumor cells to circulate throughout the body, suggesting that expansive locoregional therapy, like radical mastectomy, would not improve patient survival. Dr. Fisher began designing and conducting clinical trials to test this theory when, in 1967, he became chair of the Surgical Adjuvant Chemotherapy Breast Project, later known as the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project (NSABP).
In 1971, findings from the NSABP B-04 trial showed that total mastectomy was as effective as radical mastectomy. Five years later, results from NSABP B-06 showed that lumpectomy plus radiation treatment was as effective as mastectomy.
Dr. Fisher chaired the NSABP for 30 years. During that time, clinical trials validated the use of tamoxifen as a breast cancer treatment, introduced neoadjuvant chemotherapy to reduce tumor size, and proved the efficacy of tamoxifen for the prevention of the disease.
“Few people have completely changed the thinking and management of a disease. Dr. Fisher is truly an icon of oncology who forever changed our approach to treating breast cancer,” said ASCO senior vice president and chief medical officer Richard L. Schilsky, MD, FACP, FSCT, FASCO. “It is somehow remarkable that he would leave us in October, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.”
In addition to his pioneering work in the breast cancer arena, Dr. Fisher was an active member of ASCO throughout his career. Dr. Fisher joined ASCO in 1978 and two years later received ASCO’s David A. Karnofsky Memorial Award and Lecture, the Society’s highest scientific honor. He went on to serve as ASCO president from 1992 to 1993 and received numerous ASCO honors, including its Distinguished Service Award for Scientific Achievement in 1999 and its Statesman Award (now called the Fellow of the American Society of Clinical Oncology [FASCO] distinction) in 2007.
In addition to his achievements within ASCO, Dr. Fisher was honored for his work with numerous awards throughout his career. He was a recipient of the American Association for Cancer Research Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research, the American Surgical Association Medallion for Scientific Achievement, the Medal of Honor from the American Cancer Society, and the Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award, among others.
ASCO extends its deepest sympathies to Dr. Fisher’s family and his colleagues.