A historical perspective on the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO)

Julia Draznin Maltzman, MD
Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania

In April 1964 seven visionary doctors met for lunch at the Edgewater Bridge Hotel in Chicago. They had this novel idea to of gathering together all physicians treating patients with cancer and sharing their experiences as well as information. There were not many people treating cancer at the time. In fact, oncology was not yet a recognized discipline and the attending physicians were all general medicine doctors. The founding seven members were gathered together primarily by the vision of two men: Fred J. Ansfield, MD, a general practitioner from Wisconsin, and Arnoldus Goudsmit, MD, PhD, an internist from Ohio. These two men recognized the need to share information and provide a forum for learning and teaching in this new field called Oncology. At the time, cancer was generally thought of as a hopeless battle. But these individuals persisted and honestly believed that there may come a day when they could help the victims of this disease. They asked five other physicians, whose primary focus was to care for children and adults with cancer, to join them for lunch and discuss such a radical idea as to create a clinical oncology society. The five invited physicians were: Dr. Herman. A. Freckman, Dr. William. Wilson, Dr. Harry. F. Bisel, Dr. Jane. C. Write, and Dr. Robert Tally.

Seven months after this luncheon, the first Oncology meeting took place at the Chicago Lake Shore Hotel. Forty-four physicians attended this half-day symposium. Dr. Goudsmit wore an essay entitled "Some Considerations Relative to the Present Status of Clinical Oncology" in 1964 which served as the bylaws for this new organization. Dr. Write proposed the name American Society for Clinical Oncology, which we all know today.

At the time, the idea that one can make progress in cancer was unimaginable and therefore the need to establish a society for an exchange of ideas and thoughts was thought of as unnecessary. The overwhelming notion in the country was that any treatment would be worse than the disease itself. However, with time and perseverance by some key individuals, the ASCO meetings grew in numbers and became the society we know today with over 40,000 attendees at the annual meeting.

This was a truly exciting time in cancer treatment development. As its first president, Dr. Bisel, saw ASCO through both scientific and clinical developments. He is credited with developing the society's first committees and planned scientific meeting which was held in Philadelphia, PA in 1965. Concurrently, scientific and clinical progress continues and in the decade between 1965-74 saw the fist successes with the treatment of childhood Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL). The first chemotherapy agents available for use were the nitrogen mustards used in World War II. These drugs were noted to induce remission in kids with ALL. With time, a new generation of drugs called the anti-folates, such as 5FU and Methotrexate, became available. They too were noted to induce remission in ALL patients. The next big leap in cancer therapy came when it was observed that combining these agents had a synergistic effect on the cancer, rather than additive. In other words, the drugs used complemented each other and made each more powerful. Suddenly, childhood leukemia became a potentially curable disease. Subsequently, this concept of combination chemotherapy was applied to Lymphoma, and it also experienced huge therapeutic successes.

One decade after its inception, the 1974 ASCO president, B.J. Kennedy, recognized the growing potential of oncology and successfully lobbied to institute a certifying examination in this new discipline. In 1975 the first oncology boards were offered and this placed the subspecialty on the academic map. Interest increased exponentially and resulted in tremendous growth of the discipline and in the society.

In 1980 the need for an oncology journal was recognized and the Journal of Clinical Oncology (JCO) was first published. The JCO became the official journal of ASCO and a forum in which their discussions could be shared with all oncologists worldwide. Also during the 1980's ASCO grew and diversified. The society included now not only medical oncologists, but also pediatric, surgical, radiation, and gynecologic oncologists. As its membership numbers grew, so did public awareness. The new multi-disciplinary society saw changes in societal attitudes toward cancer at this time. This was the time that patient advocacy flourished and became a loud and powerful voice. Politicians realized they had to listen to patients, doctors realized they needed to galvanize patients in their own health care. The Society now needed formal headquarters to gather, organize, index, and channel information properly. In 1995, Alexandria, VA became the new ASCO headquarters.

With time the challenges to ASCO have become even more complex. In addition to providing education and teaching to thousands of academic and private practice physicians, ASCO has gotten involved in politics, medical economics, charity events, patient advocacy and support, and even international programs all designed to improve the delivery of oncologic care.

This years ASCO meeting marks the fortieth birthday for this Society.

Oncolink's ASCO Coverage made possible by an unrestricted Educational Grant from Bristol-Myers Squibb Oncology.