Sexism at Cancer Lab

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Sexism at Cancer Lab

by Politics of Cancer Committee, Science for the People, NYC Chapter

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 8, No. 5, September/October 1976, p. 20–23

Three cancer researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center1 (FHCRC), Seattle, Washington, have lost their appointments at the culmination of a three-year fight with the administration of that Center. Their struggle exposes some of the basic flaws in the “war on cancer,” which currently spends about three quarters of a billion dollars a year without making significant progress in reduction of either incidence or death rate. 

Ruth W. Shearer, Ph.D. and two of her male coworkers held appointments as Assistant Members of the FHCRC beginning in 1972. Their specific interest was in the mechanism of cancer-causation by chemicals, viruses and radiation, as well as the factors involved in preventing the carcinogenic process. Dr. Shearer had written over a dozen papers in the field and participated in a number of international symposia. She organized the well-attended “Diet and Cancer” symposium at the AAAS meeting in Boston, February, 1976, at which her associate Dr. Thomas J. Slaga, presented a paper on “Protective Factors in the Diet.” Even the man who fired her, William B. Hutchinson, M.D.,2 president and director, admitted (as he dismissed her), ” … you have a highly creditable record of research accomplishment and this is recognized nationally.” (letter to RWS, 2/12/75) Yet, despite this, none of the three was recommended for appointment after July 1, 1976, and two of them are now working elsewhere. The other has remained with Pacific N.W. Research Foundation (PNRF), the parent organization of FHCRC, where all three held positions prior to the existence of FHCRC.

In a series of memoranda which she has made available to Science for the People, Dr. Shearer relates that their problems began after she and her two colleagues were placed in the “disloyal” category in 1973 by Dr. Charles Evans, associate director and effective head of FHCRC. This was in part the result of their protesting sex discrimination: although all three scientists had come to the PNRF at the same time, after completing their postdoctoral training, Dr. Shearer received substantially less pay and benefits than her two colleagues, something she found out when they compared their paychecks. She naturally requested pay equal to that of the two men, and the two supported her request. This was, of course, taboo and helped mark her as a dangerous agitator.3

Their disloyalty was verified in the eyes of the administration, Dr. Shearer says, “when we failed to bring our checks for $100 for Senator Warren Magnuson’s [D.-Wash.] campaign, after being commanded to do so by Dr. Hutchinson’s secretary.” (letter from RWS to Scientific Advisory Board, FHCRC, 11/19/75) Magnuson is a long-time friend of the research lobby in Washington and was instrumental in getting the FHCRC established and funded. He is featured in a prominent full-page photo in the FHCRC Annual Report (1975). Such Congressional patrons of Big Science apparently reap rich rewards, in votes and money, if Ruth Shearer’s experience is at all typical.

Divide and Conquer 

From then on, the Administration considered them “unmanageable.” (quoted in letter from RWS to Scientific Advisory Board, 11/19/75) When Dr. Slaga approached Dr. Karl Hellstrom, a well-known FHCRC immunologist, and asked why they were not being appointed, “he was told that the COPAP [Committee on Program and Personnel] members all know that our research is good, but we don’t have a leader.” The trio had always functioned as a cooperative, so there was no individual the hierarchy could pressure in order to control them.


” … Perhaps you are aware that the Scientific Advisory Board is in fact something of a puppet superstructure, existing more to comply with terms of granting agencies than to provide powerful influence or direction to the Center.”

 -from a letter from a member of the Scientific Advisory Board to an M.D. friend of Dr. Shearer’s who had written to the Board in support of her case after all 10 members of the Scientific Advisory Board failed to answer her letter of November 19, 1975. 

The by-laws of the FHCRC charge the Scientific Advisory Board with the determination of program priorities. These decisions have been taken over by COPAP. Unlike the SAB, required by the by-laws to be nonemployees, all but one COPAP member are employees of FHCRC with vested interests in promoting the fields of research which associate director Charles Evans favors.


To break their growing unity, the administrators tried some classic divisory tactics. For instance, they told Dr. Shearer in January, 1974, that she would have to wait until June for her pay raise. They then authorized pay raises for the two men to start the next month. “I objected to this discriminatory delay in my pay raise,” she wrote in a memorandum on 12116/75, “and was told that in that case the men would also have to wait until June! This obvious attempt to destroy our cooperative relationship by the ‘divide and conquer’ technique failed, but communication did become more strained” among the three. 

The FHCRC also demonstrated that they placed their own political needs above the need to fight cancer. Their harrassment significantly hampered the scientists’ work. For example, Dr. Shearer was given very little workspace, and they were not allowed to accept grants which paid less overhead than the National Cancer Institute (NCI) paid. They were assigned parking two blocks away, although new people appointed in 1975 were parking right across the street. When Dr. Shearer called these problems to Dr. Hutchinson’s attention, he refused to answer her letter.


Sloan-Kettering: Another Cancer Research Center 

At New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center virtually no research into epidemiology has been done in almost a decade, there is no department of preventive medicine, and carcinogenesis research has very low priority: at Sloan-Kettering, only three or four scientists, out of almost 300, are working on prevention-related projects. For this reason, the Politics of Cancer Committee of Science for the People, NY Chapter, has demanded that Memorial Sloan-Kettering devote a major part of its effort to research into the prevention of cancer. In analyzing Sloan-Kettering Institute, our Committee has found that the very people who would stand to lose the most by a preventive approach to cancer also dominate Sloan-Kettering: the big polluters, such as General Motors, and the New York bankers who control these corporations. For more than a dozen years, Dr. Leo Wade, former medical director of Standard Oil of New Jersey, was the vice-president of Sloan-Kettering. Under his direction practically nothing was done to uncover carcinogens in the environment. Several other prominent Board members are also officers of Exxon. 

The monopoly capitalists have many prestigious scientists on their payroll, whose job it is to defend their profit-oriented approach to medicine, and make it sound “scientific.” Dr. Lewis Thomas, for example, the President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, is a vocal opponent of unorthodox methods. He is also on the Board of Directors of Squibb, Inc., one of the world’s largest drug companies and manufacturers of anticancer drugs. Dr. Robert A. Good, director of Sloan-Kettering Institute, is a consultant to Merck, Sharpe & Dohme, another drug giant. Dr. James B. Fisk, another MSKCC Trustee, is a director of American Cyanamid/Lederle Laboratories, makers of Methotrexate and other anticancer agents. There are many other examples. 

When this kind of conflict-of-interest is built into the structure of a research center, it is practically impossible for any productive research to be done which might threaten the capitalists.


After Ruth Shearer communicated these problems to the Scientific Advisory Board of FHCRC in November 1975, the administration wrote to the NCI and requested the withdrawal of Dr. Shearer’s grant for research in the molecular genetics of tumors. The head of tumor biology grants at NCI, Dr. Brian Kimes, told her that it was unheard of for an administrator to try to sabotage a priority project in this manner. Kimes called the FHCRC leadership and got them to postpone this request until the end of May. Next, the FHCRC refused to allow her to transfer any of her research equipment to her new sponsoring institution, even though this equipment had been bought specifically for her projects. Although many institutions do keep researchers’ equipment when they leave by choice, the American Cancer Society, which had paid for most of Dr. Shearer’s equipment in the first place, requested its transfer to facilitate continuity in the project. The administration regarded the equipment not as tools which Dr. Shearer would use to try to understand cancer, but as private property which they had acquired and intended to hold on to in order to build their research fiefdom. 

In addition, she claims that they siphoned off funds, which were donated to PNRF specifically for her research, into the building program of FHCRC. In investigating these relatively small gifts, Dr. Shearer discovered that “all contributions, no matter how designated, end up in the building fund” at FHCRC (memorandum by RWS, 12/16/75). 

Putting Prevention Last 

Dr. Shearer and her two colleagues’ work is in the field of chemical carcinogenesis, a vital area of research since 60-90 percent of human cancers are caused by environmental factors.4 Yet when they met with Dr. Charles Evans in the fall of 1974 to discuss their progress, Evans began the meeting with, “Now, you know that I don’t consider chemical carcinogenesis an important field-I believe that virology and immunology are the only fields of cancer research worth pursuing.” (RWS memo 12/16/75) Although this may sound shocking to some, Evans’ attitude reflects the general situation in the “war on cancer” today. Such fields as chemical carcinogenesis and epidemiology are two areas that must be stressed if cancer is to be prevented. Yet the NCI spends only about 10-17 percent of its budget on cancer causation,5 and the higher figure generously includes the virus program, or “biological carcinogenesis” as it is now sometimes called! 

A subcommittee of the National Cancer Advisory Board, headed by Dr. Philippe Shubik, expressed its “general astonishment” in 1975 at the “low priority” accorded research into environmental causes of cancer. More recently, Dr. Umberto Saffioti resigned his post as head of the NCI chemical carcinogenesis program in the Division of Cancer Cause and Prevention and made similar charges. 

“There’s Money in Cancer” 

The control of research depends in part on the governing boards and officials of institutions like FHCRC (see box for another example), and on the national policies of the granting agencies. However, in addition it is shaped by the prevailing ideology of the science practitioners themselves, which frequently takes the form of individualism, opportunism and careerism. These attitudes can serve the interests of offending industries and business in general-the capitalist system-as well as if the big capitalists were directing these matters themselves. Building an “empire” and defending it become the chief goals of science administrators and many researchers wind up having to spend half of their time simply writing proposals and pursuing funds. In such a situation, success and power often go to those who care the least about the serious responsibilities of their work. 

Careerism, in particular, stifles creative and potentially “disturbing” research at this and similar cancer centers, which have sprung up since the passage of the National Cancer Act in 1971. When Dr. Shearer asked one FHCRC scientist (member of COPAP) to collaborate with her on a project, he told her irritatedly, “Look, I don’t want to talk about correlations! I don’t believe my work is significant to cancer. Sure I’m in a cancer center, but that’s for political reasons. There’s money in cancer. But I’m not really interested in cancer!” (letter from RWS to Scientific Advisory Board, FHCRC, 11/19/75) 

This kind of opportunism is common in the “war on cancer” and the astute opportunist often knows how to hustle for grants and contracts and beat out the more serious or dedicated researchers. Yet, as Dr. Shearer points out, “the most important questions require a many-pronged attack by researchers trained in different disciplines. This is a primary reason for the establishment of comprehensive cancer centers in the first place!” (memo of 12/16/75) 

Another obstacle to productive research is the effect such careerism, opportunism and greed have on the development of new ideas. Dr. Howard Temin, upon being notified that he had received the 1975 Nobel Prize, said he thought that cancer research needed new ideas more urgently that it needed more money. “The limiting thing is a lack of new approaches.” (Portland Oregonian, October 7, 1975). Yet, as Dr. Shearer says, “New ideas are stifled by the system which requires that new Ph.D.s find a niche in the domain of an established researcher and keep this privilege by doing research which supports the interests and biases of that person rather than following up on their own leads.” (memo of 12/16/75) 

This “feudal system” helps to keep new ideas down and mavericks in their place. Contrary to the mythology of the War on Cancer, new ideas are not encouraged and are sometimes even suppressed if they threaten the interests of top bureaucrats or the big bankers and industrialists who wield enormous power in the medical field. 

Ruth Shearer and her colleagues fought hard, but did not win their struggle. Their protest, revealed in letters and memos, exposes the FHCRC administration, and illuminated some of the basic issues underlying cancer research. Issues such as these can become the focus for organized struggles. They can be used to educate and organize cancer center employees and the general public to oppose repressive and discriminatory policies. This could be done through leaflets, forums or articles. Ultimately, we feel that by bringing people into strong and principled organizations effective changes can be made in the field of science, and fights like this can be won. 

The experience of these researchers shows that the fight against cancer is a political struggle, involving fundamental class interests, as well as a scientific one.

Politics of Cancer Committee
Science for the People, New York City Chapter

Epilogue: Ruth Shearer is now working-free of bureaucratic abuse and inhibitions-at a newly formed nonprofit research organization, the Issaquah Group for Health and Environmental Research near Seattle. This organization was created by friends and supporters of Dr. Shearer in her battle with the FHCRC. (address: 1595 N. W. Gilman Blvd., Issaquah, W A 98027). Dr. Thomas J. Slaga is now working in the Cancer and Toxicology Program of the Biology Division of Oak Ridge National Lab, Oak Ridge, Tennessee. 

Members of the Politics of Cancer Committee of SftP in New York work in the fields of health care and cancer research. Several of them are employed at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Research Center where they have been actively involved in struggle pertaining to cancer research, especially opposing the suppression of new ideas and advocating emphasis on cancer prevention. 

>>  Back to Vol. 8, No. 5  <<


  1. Fred Hutchinson was a professional baseball player who died of cancer in 1964. The FHCRC was organized in 1971, and designated one of the Comprehensive Cancer Centers by the National Cancer Institute in 1972, in part through the efforts of Sen. Warren Magnuson [D. Wash.]
  2. FHCRC Director, William Hutchinson, brother of Fred Hutchinson, is a former surgeon. He is wealthy and has close ties to the Seattle political and financial elite.
  3. This male chauvinism is obviously not unique to the FHCRC administration. At the Sloan-Kettering Institute in NY, only two of the 44 Members and Member Emeriti are women.
  4. Samuel S. Epstein, “Epidemic! The Cancer-Producing Society,” Science for the People, July, 1976, p. 4.
  5. The bulk of NCI funding is for research in treatment and rehabilitation of cancer, including for example chemotherapy (treatment with experimental anticancer drugs), radiation therapy (use of all kinds of radiation to destroy cancer tissue) and diagnostic technologies.