Kenneth L Abbott, MD, FACP  |  3/20/2023

William Dameshek (1900-1969)

The American Society of Hematology, the leading scientific association concentrated on the various disorders of the blood, annually recognizes outstanding individual contributions to the field by awarding the prestigious Dameshek Prize. But for whom is this prize named?

William Dameshek rose from humble and obscure origins in Tsarist Russia to become the “Mister Hematology” of his day, a superb clinical researcher, founder of the medical journal Blood, and pioneer in the use of chemotherapy to treat cancer. His family emigrated to the United States when he was only three years old. An outstanding student, he graduated from Harvard Medical School at the now-early age of 23 and pursued a brilliant career in academic clinical hematology.

The capabilities of mustard gas, a chemical agent deployed in the First World War, to damage rapidly growing cells in its victims received greater attention as a possible treatment for cancer during the years between the wars. Instructed by military experiences in the Second World War, researchers designed clinical trials using a liquid form of the chemical, dubbed nitrogen mustard, to treat patients with cancer whose tumors could not be removed surgically or handled safely with radiation. The result of one such trial involving multiple hospitals and clinics, headed by Dr. Dameshek and colleagues, produced a landmark 1946 JAMA article describing the (unhappily short-lived) benefit of using nitrogen mustard against several cancer types, with particular utility against Hodgkin’s disease. This research largely set the stage for the modern chemotherapy era. Nitrogen mustard, or its chemical variants, continued in active use as part of combination regimens given against Hodgkin’s disease well into the 1990s, after which better, less toxic drugs supplanted it. I am old enough in clinical practice to have used the drug on a few occasions early in my career, which I suppose makes me something of a dinosaur.

The aphorism, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” is older than Isaac Newton, to whom it is often ascribed; he indeed used it in a letter he wrote to Robert Hooke, the 17th century discoverer of the cell. Oncologists practicing in the 21st century owe a great debt to the efforts of people such as Dr. Dameshek, who deserves to be more widely known outside his profession. For if oncologists have benefitted from his research, their patients have benefitted even more.
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