Pioneers who brought new hope for breast cancer patients

In the 1950s, two Yorkshire doctors sent shockwaves through the medical profession with a controversial approach to treating breast cancer. Sarah Freeman reports.

On May 22, 1959, a seemingly innocuous article in the Yorkshire Post caused a wave of controversy, ruffling the feathers of many of the medical profession's old guard.

Beginning with "A new method of treating breast cancer by combining endocrine therapy with the administration of an antimitotic agent has been tried at Bradford Royal Infirmary," many readers would have been forgiven for not deciphering the importance of the piece.

But behind the medical jargon was the announcement that surgeon George Whyte-Watson and pathologist Prof Robert Turner were pioneering a revolutionary treatment which would forever change the face of cancer treatment.

Their discovery was chemotherapy and while history would show them to be forward-thinking innovators, it was only by ignoring their many critics that the pair forged ahead.

"I came to Bradford very bright and determined," said Prof Turner, talking to the Yorkshire Post, shortly before his death in 1990 at the age of 67. "I found wards full of women suffering from cancer of the breast. They were basically awaiting death in the majority of cases. In those days, there was no treatment beyond surgery and radiotherapy.

"What we advocated was abandoning the long-held premise that in early stages the disease was confined to one particular location and argued chemotherapy should be used as a back-up to surgery in every case.

"It caused a hell of a stink in the medical profession. They were outrageously conservative. What the medical profession objected most to was the idea of a surgeon dabbling in medicine and a pathologist messing about with living patients."

It was perhaps this kind of attitude, which paid little heed to sceptics and traditionalists, which was responsible for the success of chemotherapy.

The initial trial of 34 women, aged from 23 to 76 and at various stages of the disease, saw a marked improvement in 30 of the cases. By 1975, only 46 per cent of women suffering breast cancer survived 10 years after treatment, by the 1980s the figure had risen to 56 per cent and today it stands at more than 70 per cent.

With today's survivors a living testament to the work of Whyte-Watson and Turner, the Royal College of Surgeons is now hoping to pull together an archive of their achievements and a permanent tribute to their lives and times.

"The Yorkshire Post was one of the first papers to break the news in May 1959 of a staggering development in cancer chemotherapy in Bradford," says researcher Will Watson. "Their ingenuity, courage and work at both Bradford Royal Infirmary and the city's St Luke's Hospital turned a corner in cancer treatment and many people today owe their lives to them.

"Unfortunately and just simply because of the passage of time, the details of their work are on the verge of being lost to history, which would be a great shame.

"Our work is still in its early stages, but we are looking to talk to anyone who worked or who were treated by Whyte-Watson or Turner to ensure their achievements are recorded for posterity."

A portrait of Turner was unveiled at the Cancer Research Unit in Bradford last year and two years ago Pat Featherstone, a former nurse at St Luke's in the 1950s, was also moved to record both her own memories and the untold stories of the first chemotherapy guinea pigs.

In those early days the treatment required the use of testosterone and the side effects, which included developing facial hair, were often severe, but Whyte-Watson and Turner never shied away from the truth.

"We don't talk of a cure, we talk of the survival rate; not only that but also the quality of survival," said Whyte-Watson, who died just a year after retiring at his Shipley home in 1974. "We had difficulties to overcome in establishing our treatment but we eventually did begin to receive co-operation and more and more clinics are now using chemotherapy."

Those same sentiments were shared by Prof Turner who modestly refused to overestimate the advances he and his colleague had made and who in the 1980s had first-hand experience of chemotherapy when he developed stomach cancer.

"The worst part was the continuous feeling of sea sickness," he said. "I supervised my own treatment which was not ethically correct, but to be honest I did not trust anyone else to look after me.

"You can forget about magic cures. It's hard work every step of the way. The future for patients lies in finding the right combination of drugs for every cancer. The comforting thing is that units like Bradford University's are not isolated,

there are others all over the world."

While chemotherapy may still not be a magic cure, for all those whose lives it has saved or extended, the work of the Bradford surgeon and pathologist deserve to be remembered with gratitude.

Anyone who worked with Mr Whyte- Watson or Prof Turner or who has newspaper cuttings or other materials and would like to help with the project can contact Will Watson either via the email or by writing to him at Bute Medical School, University of St Andrews, Bute Building, St Andrews KY16 9TS.