Musings of a Cancer Doctor

Wide-ranging views and perspective from George W. Sledge, Jr., MD

Monday, April 16, 2012

At Clowes Hall

Life is chock-full of connections, many of which we never recognize. Two weeks ago Alan D’Andrea of Dana Farber received the  G.H.A Clowes Award at the AACR annual meeting for his work on DNA repair in Fanconi’s anemia. I had the pleasure of attending the awards banquet at the meeting.


A week later I was sitting in Clowes Hall on the Butler University campus in Indianapolis, watching a Broadway touring company present Les Miserables, and feeling all full of mid-1830’s French revolutionary fervor.  From Fanconi’s to Les Mis in a week, connected via G.H.A. Clowes. It got me wondering: who was G.H.A. Clowes?


Today he is best known, at least in cancer circles, for the award created in his honor.  The Clowes Award recognized outstanding recent accomplishments in basic cancer research, and is now in its 51st year.  Its winners are a spectacular group, and included many a future Nobel laureate (Peyton Rous, Howard Temin, Elizabeth Blackburn, among others), as well as many others who have created modern cancer biology. 


But to be remembered for an award tells you very little about a person.  Our greatest prize, the Nobel, is named for the man who created that 19th century weapon of mass destruction, dynamite.  Many have commented on the irony of naming the world’s foremost peace prize after a man who made the state-sponsored murder of millions technologically feasible.


So who was Clowes? Here in Indianapolis we pronounce his name “clues.”  Don’t ask me why, though probably that was how he pronounced it. At the AACR meetings it always gets pronounced as “close.”  Clowes was, for many years, the head of the Lilly research laboratories. While he was a distinguished scientist in his own right (more on that later), his greatest contribution to human welfare involved insulin.


Clowes was relatively new to Eli Lilly when he heard rumors (the rumor mill was as active then as now) of Banting and Best’s discovery of insulin. Contacting Banting, he was told he might hear of the discovery if he attended a seminar at Yale.  Leaving Indianapolis on Christmas Day of 1921 (“much to the disgust of my family," he later wrote), he travelled by train to New Haven, listened to the seminar, and then spoke to Banting about how to convert the initial observation (the pancreas makes insulin, which regulates blood sugar) into active treatment for diabetics.


Then, as now, the big awards go for the basic observation.  There is a degree of appropriateness to this, but then as now the translation from a scientific observation to clinical benefit is rarely easy.  Insulin, for instance, required purification and stabilization (performed by chemists at Lilly) and the development of new relationships with the meatpacking industry, as well as a great deal of clinical trial work. Try doing this all by yourself.


We remember Banting and Best, but not Clowes, for insulin. Is that fair?  Well, maybe, maybe not, but whoever said life was fair? Clowes himself, on creating the Eli Lilly research group on modern scientific grounds in 1920, wrote to the Lilly Board that “abstract scientific problems are more difficult to solve than the majority of the practical problems that come up, and consequently men who successfully work on abstract scientific questions may frequently turn their attention to practical problems with a more highly developed imagination and greater confidence, all of which means a greater chance of success in the uncertain field of research.”


Was he speaking of himself? Perhaps. But if you believed that abstract scientific problems were more difficult to solve than practical ones, then Clowes would probably not give the Clowes Award to Clowes.


Go back a few years earlier, and Clowes is present in 1907 when a group of cancer researchers met at the New Willard Hotel in Washington, DC to found the American Association for Cancer Research. Clowes worked at what later became Roswell Park, though it is perhaps more appropriate to say that he worked with Dr. Roswell Park. I didn’t even know that Roswell Park was named after someone until reading about Clowes.


So much for the science.  How about Les Mis? Clowes left a big footprint on the arts in Indiana.  A native of England, he returned regularly to Europe.  As he became wealthier, he poured his money into Renaissance art, and when he died he bequeathed his collection to the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  It is a fine collection, and includes a Rembrandt self-portrait (the artist as a dashing young man), a Rubens and Hieronomus Bosch’s Ecce Homo, all housed in the Clowes Pavilion.


Clowes Hall, where I saw Les Mis, was built in 1963, six years after Clowes died. 

I’ve been there many times over the years—it is a wonderful venue for the performing arts.  We all have lives outside of science, or should. In the city where he spent most of his professional career, Clowes is remembered not for his contributions to science and industry, but for his civic contributions, for giving the citizens of his adopted town a place to see Les Miserables.  And that is not a bad way to be remembered.


So: the founding of the AACR, Roswell Park, Nobel Laureates, insulin, Rembrandt and Bosch, a concert hall, and Les Mis. Network theory suggests that the importance of a particular node is related to the number of links radiating out from it to other nodes. Should we be judged, personally and scientifically, by our connections, by how many links radiate out from our own particular nodes? By how far those links carry, both temporally and spatially? There are worse ways of measuring value.


Or maybe it’s just getting things named after yourself.  Hmmmm. The Sledge Award for Excellence in Whatever.  The Sledge Pavilion for the Fine Arts.  The Sledge Performing Arts Auditorium.