A Pioneering Oncologist, a Pilot, and a Choral Singer, Among Other Things

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“There is and always has been, more to me than medicine. Ever since the university, I have loved flying. Ever since school, I have adored choral singing,” writes John F. Smyth, MD, in his memoir Taming the Beast: Memoirs of a Pioneering Cancer Physician. Dr. Smyth is Emeritus Professor of Medical Oncology in
the University of Edinburgh and former Editor-in-Chief of the European Journal of Cancer.

Dr. Smyth was born on October 26, 1945, in the small town of Dursley in southern Gloucestershire, England. When his father became a successful businessman, the family moved to a tiny neighborhood a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace.

Dr. Smyth writes: “But of all the things my parents did for me, I am especially grateful for their concern for our schooling. Both of them had left school at an early age and had no higher education.”


Title:Taming the Beast: Memoirs of a Pioneering Cancer Physician

Author: John F. Smyth

Publisher: Maclean Dubois

Publication Date: August 2022

Price: $27.95, hardcover, 208 pages

Although Dr. Smyth’s childhood and early adulthood were filled with exciting educational and sports challenges (he was a champion on crew), there were also difficult times. In 1956, his beloved father began to suffer from depression and anxiety. At that time, his father had what was referred to as a complete nervous breakdown, and at the age of 46, he retired from his business and never again worked. He was treated with electroshock therapy, with little success, and began self-medicating with alcohol.

“I was in my last 2 years of preparatory school, and from then until I was in my last year at Cambridge, his alcoholism became a major problem for my mother and my brother and me,” writes Dr. Smyth. When rock bottom came, his father sought help from a well-known psychiatrist, and after a 3-month inpatient stay, “he emerged as a changed man.”

The Exuberant Cambridge Life

In 1964, Dr. Smyth entered Cambridge, a life-altering experience he describes with typical gusto. “I threw myself into everything I could—playing in the college orchestra, playing rugby for the Second XV, rowing, and applying to join the university’s air squadron.”

In chapter 5, “Learning to Fly,” Dr. Smyth treats readers to an insightful journey of learning to fly. His passion for flying is evident as he describes the thrill of his first solo and several nerve-wracking experiences, such as running out of fuel on his return trip home to Redhill after attending an international conference he’d flown to in his Tiger Moth, a British biplane.

A Trip to the States

It seems that Dr. Smyth’s incredible appetite for all that Cambridge life offered in the way of extracurricular activities had a rocky effect on his studies, particularly his major in biochemistry. Interesting circumstances prevailed, and he decided to take a trip to the States, which was highlighted by a Greyhound Bus trip across the country.

Dr. Smyth writes: “My main recollection of this journey was the extraordinary size of North America!” But the trip was pivotal, in that one evening in Portland, “I had what could be called an epiphany.” During a casual get-together, Dr. Smyth met a professor, and over conversation, as Dr. Smyth confessed his up-in-the-air situation on career paths, the professor suggested medicine. “You’ve clearly got an interest in people and science,” he said, and, as they say, the rest is history.

Chapter 7, “Training,” is an intense but never dull recollection of his early days in clinical training at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital London on throughout his decision to pursue the nascent field of oncology. It was 1972, and he writes: “The subject [oncology] was already established in the US, but not at the time in Britain.” He was fortunate to meet and be mentored by Professor Gordon Hamilton Fairly, who was about to be appointed Britain’s first professor of medical oncology.

A Zest For Life

This captivating memoir is organized into 11 neatly drawn chapters, each of which takes readers into worlds and experiences most will find exotic and highly informative. Moreover, Dr. Smyth’s zest for living comes across on every page, and he brought that zest into the clinic and research lab throughout his successful career.

In the epilogue, Dr. Smyth recounts a patient of his, a retired shepherd who had advanced melanoma. Dr. Smyth counseled him, spending many hours talking about mortality and what was to come. After the patient died, his daughter visited Dr. Smyth, thanking him for helping them both deal with impending death, saying in her father’s last days they had their most meaningful conversations ever.

Dr. Smyth saved that pearl for the end of this moving book. For its journey into the human heart and beyond, Taming the Beast is highly recommended for readers of The ASCO Post and their patients.