“Most of the important things in this world have been accomplished by people who kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope. Dale Carnegie
1955 – National Cancer Institute (NCI), Bethesda, Maryland: On his first day at NCI, 28-year-old Dr. Emil Freireich was assigned to the children’s leukemia ward. It was a job nobody wanted. Doctors didn’t last long there. Medical school didn’t prepare them for the hopelessness and despair they faced in that ward. They couldn’t handle the horrific experience of treating young children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). It was a nightmarish disease.
In the 1950’s Leukemia was a death sentence. It was uncurable, and children usually died within a few months of being diagnosed. The worst part for doctors was trying to control the bleeding. In the final stages of the illness, children bled from their noses, mouths, eyes, rectum and urinary system. “The leukemia ward looked like a slaughterhouse,” Dr. Freireich recalled.
In an era where most doctors came from well-to-do families, Emil Freireich was an exception. He knew extreme poverty. He was 2 when his Hungarian immigrant father lost his Chicago restaurant and committed suicide. Freireich’s mother worked 18-hour days sewing brims on caps to support her two children. In inner-city Chicago, success was walking to school without getting beaten up or killed. Freireich stole money and food to survive.
College had never crossed his mind until his high school physics teacher suggested he ought to go. Freireich asked, “What exactly is college? And what would I need to do?” He got a $25 loan from a neighbor for the train ride to the University of Illinois, then cleaned floors and waited tables for four years to pay for his undergraduate degree. With the aid of scholarships, Freireich completed medical school at the University of Illinois in 1949. Then he completed a two-year hematology internship at Boston’s Mass General Hospital.
Because of Freireich’s hematology training, Dr. Gordon Zubrod, his boss at NCI, challenged him, “Freireich, do something to stop the bleeding.” Unaware of how difficult this would be the young doctor set out to identify possible causes.
After experimentation, Freireich believed the bleeding was due to a lack of platelets in the blood. To confirm his theory, he used platelets from his own blood in a transfusion with a 4-year-old patient. The experiment succeeded, and the child’s bleeding stopped for several days.
Freireich needed fresh blood to conduct more trials. However, the hospital blood bank, unconvinced that platelets were the answer, refused his request. Why waste blood on children who would die anyway? Freireich turned to local church parishioners for help. Using their donated blood for transfusions, he proved his theory and the bleeding stopped.
Dr. Freireich could now shift his focus to curing the dreaded disease. In the early 1960s, the only drugs known to affect leukemia cancer cells were prednisone and methotrexate. But even in small doses, both were highly toxic to children. Because each drug attacked the cancer cells differently, Dr. Freireich hypothesized that the two chemotherapy drugs could be combined and injected to stop cancer cells from mutating.
The medical community criticized Freireich’s two-drug approach as risky and immoral. He would only kill the children sooner. They reminded him of his Hippocratic Oath, ‘First, do no harm.’ NCI doctors refused to participate in the program, but Freireich eventually convinced Dr. Zubrod to let him try administering combinations of drugs.
After numerous trials, Dr. Freireich treated 13 children for a year using a three-drug chemotherapy cocktail and achieved a significant milestone when half of the children with leukemia went into remission. By 1961, Freireich administered a 4-drug cocktail with a 90% remission rate. He had found the cure for childhood leukemia.
Four years later, Dr. Freireich was recruited by the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center to launch a chemotherapy program. His revolutionary discoveries utilizing multiple drug combos to treat various cancers received worldwide recognition.
On September 1, 2015, the 88-year-old legendary hematologist, oncologist and Father of Clinical Cancer Research retired from M.D. Anderson after 50 years of service. On numerous occasions, fellow physicians had criticized him for his radical ideas. During his distinguished career the trailblazer had effectively cured the dreaded childhood ALL and pioneered the treatment for many other cancers, saving the lives of millions of children.
Emil Freireich dared to do the unthinkable. He experimented on children. And he did it because he understood from his childhood experience that it’s possible to emerge from even the darkest times healed and restored.