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Two interview sessions: 13 December 2011, 17 May 2012
Total approximate duration: 3 hours 40 minutes
Interviewer: Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D.
For supplementary materials:
Please contact, the Historical Resources Center, Research Medical Library:
Javier Garza, MSIS, firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Interview Subject:
Molecular pathologist Frederick F. Becker (b. 1931, New York, NY) was recruited to MD Anderson in 1976 to chair the Department of Pathology. He quickly made a research impact with his discovery of epigenetic changes during pre-malignancy and in malignant tumors. His work has also focused on treatments (e.g. TX-262 and pancreatic tumor cells) and techniques for isolating circulating tumor cells using dielectrophoresis. Dr. Becker had a deep impact on MD Anderson’s multi-disciplinary and translational approach to research through his service as MD Anderson’s first Vice President of Research, a role he served from 1979 until his retirement in 1998.
Major Topics Covered:
Personal and educational background
The evolution of pathology; the pathologist’s ‘eye’
Research: TX-262 (pancreatic cancer), dielectrophoresis
Building MD Anderson’s Department of Pathology
Building MD Anderson’s research culture: multi-disciplinary research, excellence, fundraising
Working with MD Anderson presidents
The institution and financial stress
Texas and Texans
Regarding the Transcript and Audio Files
In accordance with oral history best practices, this transcript was intentionally created to preserve the conversational language of the interview sessions. (Language has not been edited to conform to written prose).
The interview subject was given the opportunity to review the transcript. Any requested editorial changes are indicated in brackets [ ], and the audio file has not correspondingly altered.
Redactions to the transcript and audio files may have been made in response to the interview subject’s request or to eliminate personal health information in compliance with HIPAA.
The views expressed in this interview are solely the perspective of the interview subject.They are not to be interpreted as the official view of any other individual or of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Interview Session One: 13 December 2011
A Pathway to Pathology With Inspiring Mentors
Chapter 01 / Educational Path
A Pathologist Discovers His “Eye”; An Introduction to Judah Folkmann
Chapter 02 / Professional Path
An Introduction to R. Lee Clark and MD Anderson
Chapter 03 / Joining MD Anderson/Coming to Texas
Building a Modern Department of Pathology
Chapter 04 / Building the Institution
Memories of MD Anderson and the Texas in the Seventies
Chapter 05 / MD Anderson Past
Interview Session Two: 17 May 2012
Updating MD Anderson’s Pathology Laboratories
Chapter 06 / Building the Institution
Building Research and Facilities Under Charles LeMaistre
Chapter 07 / Building the Institution
Creative Administration and Active Fundraising
Chapter 08 / Building the Institution
Establishing Research Excellence; Expanding to South Campus
Chapter 09 / Building the Institution
Four Areas of Research
Chapter 10 / The Researcher
MD Anderson and Strategies for Weathering Financial Stress
Chapter 11 / An Institutional Unit
A Search for a New President; Working with John Mendelsohn
Chapter 12 / Key MD Anderson Figures
A Named Chair and Views of Texas and Texans
Chapter 13 / Career and Accomplishments
Interview Session One: 13 December 2011 (listen/read)
Interview Identifier (listen/read)
Chapter 01 (Educational Path)
A Pathway to Pathology With Inspiring Mentors (listen/read)
In this segment, Dr. Becker talks about his early education and family background, his ties to New York City, and why he now considers himself a Texan. He notes the anti-Semitism that prevailed in many medical schools when he was applying (New York University was unusually non-restrictive) and the process that took him to New York University Medical College to work with pathologist Dr. Lewis Thomas.
Chapter 02 (Professional Path)
A Pathologist Discovers His “Eye”; An Introduction to Judah Folkmann (listen/read)
In this segment Dr. Becker talk about “his eye” for cellular structure and abnormality and the environment for research at NYU during his residency-fellowship. He then goes on to talk about his experiences in the Navy, including anecdotes about meeting his good friend Dr. Judah Folkmann and the research on tumors they conducted off hours. Dr. Becker noticed that tumors didn’t vascularize in their laboratory conditions: he notes that he is the “illegitimate father of angiogenesis.”
Chapter 03 (Joining MD Anderson/Coming to Texas)
An Introduction to R. Lee Clark and MD Anderson (listen/read)
In this segment, Dr. Becker briefly sketches his career path when he returned to New York and joined the Department of Pathology at New York University Medical College. He describes the inbreeding that can take place at institutions and then talks about his recruitment to MD Anderson. He offers anecdotes about his interactions with Dr. R. Lee Clark, talks about his leadership style, and mentions other significant figures whom he worked with on arrival.
Chapter 04 (Building the Institution)
Building a Modern Department of Pathology (listen/read)
In this segment, Dr. Becker talks about taking over as Chair of Pathology where “there was almost no research going on.” He characterizes his leadership style and offers a telling anecdote about supporting a young and creative faculty member. He talks about challenges he faced as he went about modernizing research, some of which came from the institutional structure, and offers his view that all researchers evolve through experience. He goes into detail about the challenges he faced and he talks about his own requirements for upgrading his MD Anderson laboratory (detailed in a letter that came to be called “the Bill of Particulars”). There were no cold rooms, for example, some of the facilities assigned to him had inadequate electricity, and a previous faculty member had left behind radioactive materials. Dr. Becker describes how he intervened in an unusual dimension of the culture that held back researchers’ careers at MD Anderson: though researchers had access to very unusual tumors, but were hesitant to publish on them. Dr. Becker encouraged them to go ahead and publish. He talks about the perception of other faculty that he was at MD Anderson to convert pathology to laboratory research rather than a complementary clinical activity.
Chapter 05 (MD Anderson Past)
Memories of MD Anderson and the Texas in the Seventies (listen/read)
In this segment, Dr. Becker notes that when he arrived at MD Anderson, it was a large and complex institution, but still had an administrative structure designed for a very small enterprise (a “mom and pop store”) and suffered from faculty inbreeding. After a pause in the interview, Dr. Becker shifts subject and tells some stories about the conservatism in Houston in the sixties, then talks about the period when Dr. R. Lee Clark stepped down and Dr. Charles A. LeMaistre took over as president of MD Anderson.
Interview Session Two: 17 May 2012 (listen/read)
Interview Identifier (listen/read)
Chapter 06 (Building the Institution)
Updating MD Anderson’s Pathology Laboratories (listen/read)
Dr. Becker first talks about the early phase of his research, beginning with a discussion of “classical pathology,” the histology-based practice on which his molecular approach is grounded. He segues briefly into a description of what was required to modernize the “primitive” conditions of MD Anderson’s laboratories when he joined the institution. (He was nicknamed “Cold Room Becker,” because of his multiple requests for this essential facility.) He then talks about his research into cancer chemical carcinogenesis in the livers of animals. His laboratory made a significant contribution by observing alterations in cell division and identifying stochastic sequences. He notes that he also expanded research in the Pathology Department by bringing in fellows and faculty with pathology training.
Chapter 07 (Building the Institution)
Building Research and Facilities Under Charles LeMaistre (listen/read)
Dr. Becker explains some changes in MD Anderson when Dr. Charles LeMaistre took over as MD Anderson’s president with R. Lee Clark’s retirement. He notes that Dr. LeMaistre’s qualifications and his view that the institution needed a stronger academic structure and research base. In line with this vision, Dr. LeMaistre created a Vice President for Research, asking Dr. Becker to assume this position. Dr. Becker describes how he set up his administrative practice so it would not compromise his research career, then details his efforts to increase research facilities, recruit outstanding scientists and create professorships. He recalls his insistence that he be able to recruit anyone from anywhere (even a “polka dotted hermaphroditic Venusian geneticist”) in order to pursue excellence, and notes that this was unusual in MD Anderson’s “deep South” mentality at the time, when the faculty was geographically and racially limited. Dr. LeMaistre supported Dr. Becker’s efforts to bring diversity to the faculty.
Chapter 08 (Building the Institution)
Creative Administration and Active Fundraising (listen/read)
Dr. Becker talks about efforts to expand MD Anderson and try innovative administrative approaches. He recalls the effectiveness and creativity of his staff. He then touches on fundraising topics, including Dr. LeMaistre’s creation of the Board of Visitors, the creation of endowed chairs, and the creation of the South Campus –Research Park. He then tells the story of how Research Park came out of the failed attempt to create a food service operation on South Campus (“the Kitchen of the Jolly Green Giant”), beginning with the R.E. Bob Smith Building for Research, which enabled recruitment of top researchers such as Dr. Isaiah J. Fidler and Dr. Margaret Kripke. He notes some pros and cons of Research Park (which is at a distance from MD Anderson’s main campus). He then recalls how Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach and some other faculty came to him with a proposal for a clinical fellowship program –an instance of “bottom-up” creativity and part of the larger plan to build up to a “critical mass” of both basic and clinical laboratory research.
Chapter 09 (Building the Institution)
Establishing Research Excellence; Expanding to South Campus (listen/read)
Dr. Becker discusses how MD Anderson maintained excellence in research, beginning with the creation of an External Advisory Board of top research and clinical scientists who reviewed the credentials of prospective hires and who came to MD Anderson once a year to review plans that Dr. Becker made for developing research. He describes the “unhomogenous” character of research, in that not all the researchers were first class, largely due to inbreeding in early hiring practices. He notes difficulties in shifting the culture of inbreeding and praises MD Anderson’s tenure system –a 7-year rollover system. Dr. Becker then describes the criteria used for determining excellence and underscores that they always attempted to be fair in evaluating faculty, particularly since they did not want to lose someone who was creative (and who might have had difficulty acquiring funding for cutting edge work). He also notes MD Anderson never lost one of the cases brought by faculty who were terminated. The support of excellence increased the institution’s ability to raise fund and, therefore, recruit even more top faculty. He also addresses the past criticism that MD Anderson had never produced a National Academy of Science member, noting several faculty members who were appointed to the Academy shortly after being recruited away. He then talks about the building of South Campus and its role in expanding research.
Chapter 10 (The Researcher)
Four Areas of Research (listen/read)
In this segment, begins to discuss his research contributions. He first notes that he met Dr. Judah Folkmann (while they were in the Navy) and informally began to study the growth and spread of tumor cells. Dr. Becker notes that some of his observations –made from a pathologist’s perspective – contributed to Dr. Folkmann’s work on tumor angiogenesis. Dr. Becker then talks about his work in epigenesis (the non-genetic modification of genes) and his work on methylation of DNA (first paper published in 1979). Dr. Becker’s laboratory was the first to describe epigenetic processes in cancer. He then describes his recent work with TX-262, a compound that has promising uses in killing pancreatic tumor cells, and goes on to talk about his advances in isolating circulating tumor cells using dielectrophoresis (DEP). Dr. Becker describes how he began to work in this area, his collaboration with Dr. Peter Gascoyne (who came to work with Dr. Becker as a research fellow), and the uses of DEP.
Chapter 11 (An Institutional Unit)
MD Anderson and Strategies for Weathering Financial Stress (listen/read)
Dr. Becker shifts to administrative topics, first noting the advantages MD Anderson gains from having its faculty on salary. He describes the difficult period in the 1980s, when physicians did not want to refer patients to MD Anderson and when HMOs were restructuring medical payment –to MD Anderson’s disadvantage, since its care was expensive. He explains how Dr. LeMaistre organized the Board of Visitors and others to demonstrate to the Texas Legislature that MD Anderson might go bankrupt, with the result that the Legislature created the possibility for patients to self-refer. He notes that the Board of Visitors set up special funding at that time to supplement what patients would receive from their own medical plans in order that they might receive the sophisticated treatment offered at MD Anderson. Returning to the issue of cutbacks, Dr. Becker notes that they were done by formula.
Chapter 12 (Key MD Anderson Figures)
A Search for a New President; Working with John Mendelsohn (listen/read)
Dr. Becker begins the next section with comments on the search for the new president, John Mendelsohn, and Charles LeMaistre’s retirement. He describes how the search process worked, lists Dr. Mendelsohn’s credentials, and notes that he could be considered the “first outsider” to be selected as president. He notes the particular value of Dr. Mendelsohn’s experience with business in creating what he calls “The New Anderson,” with a corporate structure. He recalls that by 1998, two years in to Dr. Mendelsohn’s presidency, he was wearing out as an administrator. He describes his role as Special Advisor to the President when he stepped down as Vice President of Research. Among other initiatives, Dr. Becker worked on developing CORE grants, sat in on the External Advisory Board, and saw through construction projects initiated while he was Vice President. Once Dr. Mendelsohn had his own support system in place, Dr. Becker stepped away, eventually giving up all administrative responsibilities and taking a faculty position without pay.
Chapter 13 (Career and Accomplishments)
A Named Chair and Views of Texas and Texans (listen/read)
Dr. Becker talks about his surprise when John Mendelsohn created the Frederick F. Becker University Cancer Chair. Because it was funded by donations from many “legendary Texas families,” Dr. Becker feels very accepted in Texas. He describes what he’d like to import from Texas to New York, and vice versa.
Chapter 14 (Key MD Anderson Figures)
Impressions of Dr. Ronald DePinho (listen/read)
Dr. Becker then talks about his surprise that the search committee selected Dr. Ronald DePinho to succeed John Mendelsohn. In the final moments he talks about the importance of MD Anderson being listed as a co-grantor on degrees conferred by the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. He notes the creation of MD Anderson’s academic convocation as an important recognition of accomplishment. He ends the interview with an anecdote about attending an address by Dr. DePinho and sitting next to Dr. LeMaistre.
 Note: Dr. LeMaistre says in his interview that R. Lee Clark established the BOV.
Molecular pathologist Dr. Frederick F. Becker (b. 1931, New York, NY) is interviewed in this two-session interview (3 hours 40 minutes). Dr. Becker was recruited to MD Anderson in 1976 to chair the Department of Pathology: in 1979 he was appointed Vice President of Research and served in that role until his retirement in 1998. He held the Hubert L. And Olive Stringer Distinguished Chair in Basic Science for many years. These sessions, conducted by Tacey A. Rosolowski, follow up on a 2001 interview. The sessions take place in Dr. Becker’s office in Research Park, on the South Campus of MD Anderson.
Dr. Becker received his B.A. from Columbia College in New York in 1952 and went on to receive his M.D from the New York University School of Medicine in 1956. He went to the Harvard Medical Service, Boston, Massachusetts, for his internship in Medicine (1956-57), then returned to New York to take up his roles a Resident-Fellow in Pathology and Cell Biology at NYU and Bellevue Hospital. From 1960 to ’62, Dr. Becker served at the Naval Medical Research Institute at Bethesda, Maryland. In 1962 he returned to New York to take up a position as an Assistant Professor of Pathology (tenured ’66) at the New York University School of Medicine. When he was recruited to MD Anderson, he was a Professor of Pathology and Director of the Department of Pathology at Bellevue Medical Center.
Dr. Becker’s early research focused on the mechanisms of carcinogenesis then evolved into microfluidics and dielectrophoresis, areas of study that enabled him to develop a method for separating circulating tumor cells and characterize genes and gene products. In his administrative role as Vice President of Research, Dr. Becker was responsible for expanding the research faculty at MD Anderson, working to develop facilities and criteria for excellence that would ensure the institution’s growing prestige. He received the Charles A. LeMaistre, M.D. Outstanding Achievement Award in Cancer (1996), the first Presidents’ Award (1998), and the Distinguished Service Award (2001) in recognition of his contributions to research excellence. In 2012 the American Society for Investigative Pathology awarded him the Gold-Headed Can Award in recognition of long term contributions to pathology and excellence in research, teaching, and leadership in medicine.
In this interview, Dr. Becker speaks at length about his roles in developing the Department of Pathology and his efforts to strengthen research at MD Anderson. He also discusses his research. He offers insights into the transformation of the institution from a “mom and pop” scale (his term) to a large corporate entity.