Donald P. Pinkel, MD, who pioneered lifesaving cancer treatment for childhood leukemia patients and helped found St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, died Wednesday, March 9, 2022, at the age of 95.
Pinkel was born September 7, 1926, in Buffalo, New York. He served in the U.S. Navy before earning a bachelor’s degree from Canisius College and a medical degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Pinkel served in the Army Medical Corps and worked in Boston with renowned researcher Sidney Farber, MD. In 1956, he was named chief of pediatrics at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. In 1961, he accepted a position as a founding medical director of what would soon become St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. He served as director and chief executive officer of St. Jude from 1962 to 1973, helping cement the hospital’s mission as a place where all children could receive treatment, regardless of the families’ ability to pay. He also championed racial integration of both patients and hospital staff.
At St. Jude, Pinkel created what he called the Total Therapy approach to treatment of children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), which combined multiple anticancer drugs with radiation treatment. The combination therapy yielded a 50 percent survival rate—a dramatic improvement for a disease that was once considered a death sentence.
Pinkel’s pioneering discoveries formed the foundation of therapies that are still used today, leading to survival rates of approximately 90 percent for children diagnosed with ALL.
Later in his career, inspired by disparities that he had observed in his pediatric patients, Pinkel helped created a program to address malnutrition in local infants and children, which led to the establishment of the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). He also held positions at cancer centers in Wisconsin, California, Pennsylvania, and Texas. He retired in 1994 but taught as an adjunct professor at California Polytechnic State University.
Pinkel was recognized with the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award in 1972, the Charles F. Kettering Prize for Cancer Research in 1986, and the Pollin Prize for Pediatric Research in 2003. Other career awards include the Annual Award for Clinical Research from the American Cancer Society; the Return of the Child Award from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of America; the Zimmerman Prize for Cancer Research; the Leukemia Society Annual Lectureship; and the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health biennial Windermere Lectureship. In 2017, he was inducted into the Tennessee Hall of Fame. Also that year, the Donald P. Pinkel, MD, Research Tower at St. Jude was dedicated in his name.
Pinkel became a member of the AACR in 1959 and transferred to emeritus status in 1994. During his tenure as a member, he served with distinction on the editorial board of the AACR journal, Cancer Research.
“Donald Pinkel’s transformative work developing highly effective treatments for childhood cancer patients, as well as his brilliant leadership in the pediatric cancer research field, has saved countless lives,” said Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc), chief executive officer of the AACR. “He was revered by his admiring colleagues and students and will be fondly remembered by generations of patients who survived a potentially devastating disease thanks to his highly innovative research.”
Please also see the obituary posted by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
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