Internationally Renowned Prostate Cancer Expert Gerald E. Hanks, MD, Dies

Get Permission

FROM WILHELM RÖNTGEN’S groundbreaking discovery of x-rays in 1895, the history of radiotherapy has been rich with colorful paradigm-changing researchers and physicians who over the past century have transformed the field into one of the pillars of cancer treatment. One such trailblazer who pioneered the use of three-dimensional, conformal radiation therapy, which heightened treatment efficacy and lessened side effects, was Gerald E. Hanks, MD. Dr. Hanks died at his home in Tiburon, California, on December 20, 2017, at the age of 83. 

Gerald E. Hanks, MD

Gerald E. Hanks, MD

Basketball and Science 

DR. HANKS was born on September 21, 1934, in Ellensburg, Washington, at the time a small town of barely 4,000 people situated in the shadows of the towering Cascade Mountain Range. His father was a livestock dealer who died when Dr. Hanks was a young boy. 

In an interview at the American Society for Radiation Oncology’s (ASTRO) 43rd Annual Meeting, Dr. Hanks said his mother always encouraged his love of science and interest in pursuing a career in medicine. As a scholar-athlete, Dr. Hanks was recruited to Washington State College on a full basketball scholarship, where he distinguished himself on the court, playing for the Washington State Cougars. 

After completing his undergraduate studies, Dr. Hanks attended Washington University Medical School in St. Louis. After attaining his medical degree, he did an internal medicine internship at Yale School of Medicine. Following his internship, Dr. Hanks went back to the West Coast and began his residency at Stanford University School of Medicine. 

At that time, the nascent field of radiation oncology was part of the radiology department, focusing mainly on diagnostics. However, in an interview with The ASCO Post, Dr. Hanks’ former mentee and colleague, Eric M. Horwitz, MD, Chair of the Department of Radiology at Fox Chase Cancer Center, explained that the National Cancer Institute had decided it was time to promote radiation oncology as a subspecialty and Dr. Hanks was Stanford’s first resident in radiation oncology in a trainee program headed by Dr. Henry Kaplan and sponsored by the National Cancer Institute. In fact, at the time, he was one of only three original radiation oncology residents in the entire country. 

A Monumental Career 

AFTER COMPLETING his residency in 1963, Dr. Hanks performed academic laboratory research and clinical care at the Radiological Defense Laboratory, Stanford Medical Center. Dr. Hanks’ career path benefited from his Stanford experience, as he had the opportunity to work with Drs. Henry Kaplan and Malcolm Bagshaw, who were on the cutting edge of clinical, laboratory research, and patient care. It was during that time, working in the lab on stem cell kinetics and dose response in mouse lymphoma, when Dr. Hanks published his first paper on radiation oncology in Nature

“The term ‘giant’ is overused, but Dr. Hanks was truly one of the giants of radiation oncology. But despite all his accomplishments, he was still a super nice guy to hang around with.”
— Eric M. Horwitz, MD

Tweet this quote

In 1968, Dr. Hanks became Director of an innovative division at the University of North Carolina; his work shed new light on the radiologic management of lymphomas, prostate cancer, and gynecologic cancer, helping to initiate the Gynecologic Oncology Group. 

Beginning in 1971, Dr. Hanks worked in private practice in Sacramento, California, where he remained for the next 14 years and became very involved in clinical research with the Radiation Therapy Oncology Group and the Patterns of Care Studies. Dr. Hanks was active and influential in the development of ASTRO and served as the Association’s President from 1983 to 1984. In addition to pioneering new therapeutic techniques, Dr. Hanks was instrumental in establishing guidelines and new standards for quality of care. 

In 1985, he joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. By then, he was a leading authority on quality assurance in radiation oncology and assumed the role of principal investigator for the national Patterns of Care Studies, which monitor radiation therapy nationwide. Dr. Hanks became Head of the Radiation Oncology Department at Fox Chase Cancer Center, where he remained until his retirement from active practice. For men at high risk of prostate cancer, Dr. Hanks established the Prostate Cancer Risk Assessment Program at Fox Chase in 1996. It offers not only screening but also education about how to reduce risk factors, genetic counseling, and the opportunity to take part in prevention-oriented research. 

At Fox Chase, Dr. Hanks pioneered the use of three-dimensional, conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT), and Fox Chase initiated the 3D-CRT program in 1988. First used for prostate cancer, this therapy has become routine for many cancer sites and is now used by hospitals around the world. 

An Engaging Colleague 

LIKE OTHER GIANTS in oncology research and treatment, Dr. Hanks will be remembered for his contributions to the field. There are countless patients and their families whose lives were saved and made better from the advances in radiotherapy made possible by Dr. Hanks’ visionary work. But behind the lab coat, there was also a man who personally affected patients and associates with his warmth, humor, and generosity. 

Like many of Dr. Hanks’ colleagues at Fox Chase, Dr. Horwitz recalled him as a lively and engaging man. “I was sort of Dr. Hanks’ last mentee and was fortunate to get to work with him during the past 4 years of his career at Fox Chase. The term ‘giant’ is overused, but Dr. Hanks was truly one of the giants of radiation oncology. Among other things, he’s the person who developed 3D-CRT and made radiation oncology an evidence-based specialty back in the 1970s. But despite all his accomplishments, he was still a super nice guy to hang around with. He loved talking about sports with us. He was also a vintner and actually tried to teach us about wine.” 

Dr. Horwitz continued: “He was renowned for his work in prostate cancer, but Dr. Hanks loved science in its entirety. Every Tuesday during the residence conference, it was a requirement for us to have read The New York Times’ science section and discuss science and medicine issues we found interesting. He just thought the more we knew about science, the better physicians we’d be. And after he retired, I inherited some of his patients, as we had similar care philosophies. It struck me that so many would ask how Dr. Hanks was doing. They were truly concerned and never really knew he was such a famous person in oncology. He was the doctor who cured them of prostate cancer.” ■