A. Hamblin Letton, MD, the first Chairman of the Oncology Times Editorial Board, died in January in Atlanta. He was 93.
A surgical oncologist, Dr. Letton was president of the American Cancer Society in 1971 when President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act, and as an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted, after President Nixon finished the signing, he turned to shake Dr. Letton's hand.
Kay Horsch, a past ACS Chairman of the Board, told the paper that Dr. Letton understood that cancer control and community are synonymous. “He was extraordinarily supportive and an advocate for data and research, but understood that it would have no impact if that knowledge is not translated into treatment, practiced and disseminated in a manner that allows us to make sound decisions.”
Information provided by his daughter, Alice Letton Zachodzki, noted that while studying medicine at Emory Medical School from 1937 to 1941, he drove an ambulance at night for a funeral home to pay for his education and worked in the x-ray and laboratory department at Georgia Baptist Hospital on weekends.
During World War II, he joined the Navy and was the Medical Officer for the four escorts of carrier “Bogue” in the Atlantic Ocean. They sank 22 U-Boats and captured the German Submarine U-505, which was sent to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.
He was later sent to the Pacific Theater, where he served with the Acute Surgical Service Unit of the 1,000- bed Naval Base Hospital #19 in the Mariana Islands. During his time there the Enola Gay flew the atomic bomb to Japan, which helped end the war.
In 1950 he was a founder of the Nuclear Medicine Lab at Georgia Baptist Medical Center, and in 1991 was a cofounder of the Atlanta Cancer Center and directed one of the first three Breast Cancer Detection Demonstration Projects.
Dr. Letton became active in the American Cancer Society's Georgia Division in 1948, a time when there were no mammograms or Pap smears, and chemotherapy was only a vague concept. He remained active through the decades, chairing several national committees before serving as president in 1971. In 1998 he was recognized as the society's first 50-year volunteer.
In an interview for an ACS publication at the time, he recalled being on the ACS's first uterine cancer task force: “The doctors at that time were not sold on using the Pap smear, so we had to do something, and we finally talked women into asking for it, demanding it. They would go to their doctor and he would say ‘Well, we don't quite do that thing now.’ And she would say, ‘Well Dr. Smith down the street is doing it, I'll go to him.’ That's when the woman's own doctor would give in and give her the Pap test.”
He was also instrumental in gaining acceptance for the ACS's Reach to Recovery program. It had been introduced by the pioneering Therese Lasser, of New York City, and as Dr. Letton said, “At that time doctors felt that they ought to tell people what to do, not ‘some woman.’ So I found out about it and was able to get it into the service part of the American Cancer Society.”
As OT's first Editorial Board Chair, serving from 1980 to 1990, he enlisted an impressive array of members including other past presidents of the ACS and other leaders in the field such as Frank Rauscher Jr., PhD, NCI Director from 1972 to 1976; and cancer surgery pioneer Jonathan Evans Rhoads, MD.
Dr. Letton was also active in the International Union Against Cancer (UICC) and was a delegate to several of the Congresses.
His wife, Roberta Rogers Letton, who was also an ACS volunteer, died several years ago, as did his son and a brother. In addition to his daughter and her husband, he is survived by a grandson, two sisters, and a brother.