Childhood Leukemia Pioneer, Donald P. Pinkel, MD, Dies at 95

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When St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was opened in 1962, childhood blood cancer, especially acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), had an exceptionally grim prognosis. However, years of unflagging clinical research led by Donald P. Pinkel, MD, the pediatrician who developed an aggressive leukemia regimen, turned what was once a virtual death sentence into a curable disease. Dr. Pinkel died at his home in San Luis Obispo, California, on March 9, 2022. He was 95.

Contracting Polio While Treating Sick Children

Dr. Pinkel was born in Buffalo, New York, on September 7, 1926. His father was a hardware salesman, and his mother was a homemaker. Dr. Pinkel, who showed early promise in science, graduated from Buffalo’s Canisius High School in 1944 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy later that year. Dr. Pinkel took part in the V-12 Navy College Training Program, where he studied biology and medicine at Cornell University.

Donald P. Pinkel, MD © St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

Donald P. Pinkel, MD © St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

After returning home and graduating in 1947 from Canisius College, in Buffalo, Dr. Pinkel went directly to medical school, at what is now the University of Buffalo, covering a substantial amount of the costs by joining the Army Reserve Medical Command. He earned his medical degree in 1951; after his residency and fellowship in pediatrics, he was recruited by the Army Medical Corps and sent to a military hospital outside Boston.

The national polio epidemic was raging, and Dr. Pinkel, the only staff pediatrician, contracted polio himself. “I thought I was immune to it,” he said during an interview with the Cancer History Project. “We had big epidemics in Buffalo in the 1950s, and I took care of hundreds of children with polio. While [I was] hospitalized at Fort Devens, my respiratory function went down to a small fraction. I remember going to sleep one night and thinking, well, this is it. I’m not going to wake up.”

As his condition improved, Dr. Pinkel accepted a position as a researcher with acclaimed oncologist Sidney Farber, MD, doing early research in novel leukemia agents. This was the beginning of a meteoric rise in Dr. Pinkel’s career, as he soon returned to Buffalo; there he led a pediatrics program at Roswell Park Cancer Institute (now Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center), working alongside another luminary in cancer research, James Holland, MD.

Career-Defining Offer

In 1961, Dr. Pinkel received what would be a career-defining offer to become the Chief Medical Officer of St. Jude. According to Dr. Pinkel, although he was tempted by the opportunity to build a center from the ground up, he was undecided, largely because Memphis was a segregated southern city, which ran contrary to Dr. Pinkel’s strong egalitarian beliefs. Plus, many of his colleagues thought that given the hospital’s founder, Danny Thomas, a popular television comedian, it was difficult to take the idea seriously. However, Dr. Pinkel followed his own instincts and met with Mr. Thomas and several members of the hospital board, all of whom came away impressed by Dr. Pinkel’s credentials and his iron-willed character. Moreover, they wholeheartedly agreed with Dr. Pinkel’s philosophy: St. Jude should be need-blind, and both its staff and patient population must be completely desegregated. Dr. Pinkel accepted the offer and drove from Buffalo to Memphis in his dented Volkswagen Beetle.

In 1970, just 8 years into his tenure at St. Jude, Dr. Pinkel was able to make an extraordinary pronouncement: “Childhood leukemia can no longer be considered an incurable disease.” The hospital was seeing a 50% cure rate—and had the literature to prove it. Today, building on protocols he and his staff established at St. Jude, the survival rate for most types of childhood ALL hovers around 94%.

A Patient-First Pioneer

One of Dr. Pinkel’s most controversial clinical concepts centered on stopping the chemotherapy regimens after long periods of remission, feeling that if a patient was in remission after several years, further maintenance therapy was not necessary. He followed his first seven pediatric leukemia patients for 5 years after they’d finished therapy, publishing the results: five continued in good health, one drowned, and the other lived for 14 years before dying of another unrelated disease.

Dr. Pinkel later worked at children’s hospitals in Wisconsin, California, Pennsylvania, and Texas before retiring in 1994. He then moved to San Luis Obispo to be near some of his children and later taught as an adjunct at California Polytechnic State University.

A Humanitarian First

Over the arc of his illustrious career, Dr. Pinkel won most of the major awards given in the medical field. However, beyond prizes and awards, Dr. Pinkel was a humanitarian, as evidenced by his remarks after winning the Kettering Prize in 1986:

“I wish to take the opportunity of this gathering to plead for nutrition and health-care services to children. An increasing proportion of American children are being raised in poverty without adequate provision for their nutrition and health care. It is popular to say that people should not bear children if they cannot provide for them. But no child asks to be born and no one chooses his parents. Infants and children cannot be held accountable for the poverty or improvidence of their parents. Their health should not be penalized for it.”

After retiring, Dr. Pinkel was asked to reflect on the most rewarding part of his career. “Seeing children cured of cancer and living good lives. I saw many other kids—some of whom barely survived the first couple of weeks of leukemia—and they pulled through. They’ve gone on not only to survive but to survive with good quality of life. [But] you always have to weigh the risks of long-term damage vs the benefits. You are always sort of gambling, you might say. You don’t want people just to live longer but to live well. Seeing that, for me as a doctor, is the greatest reward of all.”

Dr. Pinkel is survived by his second wife, Cathryn Howarth; six daughters, Rebecca Amthor, Nancy Pinkel, Mary Pinkel, Noelle Greene, Sara Pinkel, and Ruth Pinkel; three sons, John, Thomas, and Michael; his sister, Eileen Pinkel; 16 grandchildren; and 5 great-grandchildren. Another son, Christopher, died in 2019.