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Friend, Charlotte

Charlotte Friend

Charlotte Friend (1921–1987) was a medical researcher who made breakthrough discoveries about viruses and their roles in causing cancer. She defended her research in the face of strong initial skepticism, eventually becoming recognized as a scientist on the forefront of medical microbiology.

The mouse virus that Friend discovered in the 1950s was named the Friend Leukemia Virus (FLV), and a newly discovered leukemia cell type was also named after her. It has been estimated that in the two decades following her discovery of the FLV in the mid-1950s, one-third of all cancer researchers spent time working on her ideas. Her discoveries suggested new techniques in the fight against cancer, and they had implications for the effort to develop a vaccine against the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, and they loomed large in medical research a half-century after she made them.

Family Savings Wiped Out by Depression

The daughter of Russian immigrants, Friend was born in New York City, New York, on March 11, 1921, and grew up in Lower Manhattan. Her father Morris, a businessman, died of a heart infection when she was three. Friend's mother had hoped to become a pharmacist, but she set her career aside to raise Friend and her two siblings (one brother and one sister). Keeping food on the table took up even more of her time when the stock market crash of 1929 swept away the inheritance Morris Friend had left. For a time, the family was forced to go on home relief, a New York City welfare program.

In spite of these difficult conditions, Friend's mother insisted that her children focus on their schoolwork. Perhaps as a result of her father's illness, Friend became interested in medicine from an early age. When she was ten, she wrote a school paper called "Why I Want to Become a Bacteriologist." Even with her strong focus on science, though, she never locked herself away with her textbooks; she was as a teenager, and remained as an adult, an avid consumer of the cultural events New York had to offer in such abundance. She applied to Hunter College High School, one of New York's tuition-free magnet schools for talented students, and was admitted. She then went on to Hunter College, putting herself through school by taking night classes and working in a doctor's office during the day.

After graduating in 1943, Friend enlisted in the United States Navy. After Midshipmen training at Smith College, she was commissioned at the rank of ensign and rose to lieutenant junior grade after being assigned to a blood lab at a naval hospital in Shoemaker, California, and becoming its deputy commander. The experience convinced Friend that she had what it took to do scientific lab work. After her discharge from the Navy in 1946, she began to look for educational opportunities.

It was an auspicious time for a young woman with no financial means to be pursuing higher education, for the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, popularly known as the G.I. Bill of Rights or the G.I. Bill, provided veterans with full payment of tuition and bills for supplies. Finally making the decision to pursue a scientific career instead of going to medical school—a choice she had struggled with for some time—Friend enrolled in the Ph.D. program in microbiology at Yale University. She impressed the faculty by seeking out top scientists in New York for help on her projects, and in 1950 she was granted her degree after finishing a thesis on the effect of aspirin on the human immune system.

Observed Mouse Tumors

Her choice of subject showed an instinct for productive research avenues, for aspirin would become a hot topic in decades to come. Friend, who never married or had children, went on to a research post at New York's Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, then a new facility on its way to becoming one of the most prestigious facilities in the cancer research world. Studying under virologist Alice Moore, Friend did research on cancer in mice. In 1952 she took on the post of associate professor in a program run jointly by Sloan-Kettering and Cornell University. Whenever she could, however, she avoided classroom teaching in favor of pure research.

The reason was simple: Friend was a paragon of pure curiosity in the laboratory. When she and another newly minted Ph.D., Cecily Canann Selby, found a Sloan-Kettering electron microscope lying unused, they were excited by the potential of the newly invented instrument and decided to use it to examine an Ehrlich ascites carcinoma, a mouse tumor frequently used in cancer studies. What they saw surprised them; the arrays of particles in the cells resembled those seen in virus-infected cells used in other research. The idea that viruses had anything to do with cancer had been raised by a few scientists, including Journal of Experimental Medicine editor Peyton Rous, but it was still quite novel at the time. Nevertheless, Friend set out to determine whether the mouse tumor cells might be viral in nature. In a series of experiments lasting for several years, she succeeded in infecting healthy adult mice with leukemia by injecting them with tissue taken from diseased mice—and in transmitting the disease from one mouse to another.

Friend summarized her findings in a paper presented at the 1956 meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In the words of Leila Diamond from the National Academies Press website, "This was a time when the concept of viruses causing cancer was still viewed with extreme skepticism, and the presentation of such data by an attractive young woman not long out of graduate school was met by disbelief and derision." Friend was met by a barrage of hostile questioning that, despite Rous's plea to his colleagues to keep an open mind, seemed to overstep the bounds of civility. Friend was distressed by the paper's reception and later said that she could never have imagined the controversy that it engendered. Eventually she was able to laugh about the professionally traumatic event, saying (according to Diamond) that she and her few sympathizers had been accused of having "either holes in their heads or holes in their filters"—filtering of the diseased tissue being a key issue in determining whether a viral agent was in fact at work.

The key point was that Friend did not back down. Working with Rous, she laid out her research in a paper, "Cell-Free Transmission in Adult Swiss Mice of a Disease Having the Character of a Leukemia" (Journal of Experimental Medicine, 1957). Her cause got a boost when a top medical researcher, Jacob Furth, confirmed her results. Other researchers began to expand on her ideas, and one of Friend's own subsequent papers, a 1959 investigation into the immunization of mice against the type of virus infection she had discovered, was often cited by later researchers working on an AIDS vaccine. By the early 1960s the ridicule Friend had received was turning into academic recognition, and in 1962 she received the Alfred P. Sloan Award for Cancer Research. She used the financial proceeds from that prize to travel to Australia, Israel, and France, circling the globe and realizing a lifelong dream of doing research at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

Treated Mouse Cancer Cells with Drug

Sloan-Kettering director Cornelius Rhoads, a strong professional backer of Friend's, died in 1959, and she began to look for more congenial surroundings. In 1966 she moved from Sloan-Kettering to the Center for Experimental Cell Biology at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Her title there was professor and director of the center, but she did no teaching, and she steered the institution in the direction of the basic research she loved. "Her presence was a major factor in establishing at the fledgling medical school a balance between emphasis on clinical care and on basic scientific research," Mount Sinai dean Nathan Kase told Harold M. Schmeck Jr. of the New York Times.

Once again, Friend threw herself into research and began to open up new avenues of experimentation. Chemotherapy and other cancer treatments, broadly speaking, work by killing cancerous cells in the body, with the undesirable side effect that many healthy cells are killed as well, wreaking havoc with the body's immune system. Working once again with mice, Friend observed that cancer cells could, under certain conditions, be caused to develop along normal paths—to transform themselves into healthy, noncancerous cells—if they were treated with a chemical, dimethyl sulfoxide. The potential implications of this discovery were enormous, for it suggested an entirely new way of treating cancer. The discovery brought Friend a new series of honors. The cells she created were named Friend erythroleukemia cells (FELC), and she received one of the highest honors in American science, election to the National Academy of Sciences, in 1976. She was also elected president of the American Association of Cancer Research, and in 1978 she became the first woman president of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Friend was well-liked among her peers, and her apartment in lower Manhattan became known as "the Friend Hotel" because it was so generously thrown open to visitors. Friend herself rarely if ever complained about gender discrimination, but her professional support became especially important in the research lives of younger women scientists, whom she mentored and nurtured by working to insure publication and conference-presentation opportunities. Friend enjoyed traveling, and she spent a year in Rome, Italy, doing research with a friend, Italian National Research Council Laboratory director Rita Levi-Montalcini. Friend had strong political beliefs, and even during the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s she spoke and wrote in favor of the rights of blacklisted colleagues—a decision that could have damaged her own career. She was a staunch supporter of the nation of Israel and a lifelong enthusiastic New Yorker. Showing the lingering effects of her early attraction to medicine, she was fond of dispensing medical advice to friends and often humorously accused herself of practicing medicine without a license.

In her later years, the amount of time Friend had to allot to dealing with federal government funding administrators distracted her somewhat from basic research. Diagnosed with lymphoma in 1981, Friend continued to work despite the debilitating effects of cancer treatment. In 1985 she became part of the first group of recipients of the Mayor's Award of Honor for Science and Technology in New York. She died in New York on January 13, 1987. In all, she wrote more than 100 papers, reviews, and book chapters. In an age when most scientific papers list several collaborative authors, the free-thinking and imaginative Charlotte Friend often worked alone, doing much to advance the study of cancer research.


Notable Scientists: From 1900 to the Present, Gale, 2001.


New York Times, May 19, 1985; January 16, 1987.


Diamond, Leila, "Charlotte Friend: March 11, 1921-January 13, 1987," National Academies Press, (December 23, 2005).

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Friend, Charlotte (1921-1987)

Friend, Charlotte (1921-1987)

American microbiologist

As the first scientist to discover a direct link between viruses and cancer, Charlotte Friend made important breakthroughs in cancer research, particularly that of leukemia. She was successful in immunizing mice against leukemia and in pointing a way toward new methods of treating the disease. Because of Friend's work, medical researchers developed a greater understanding of cancer and how it can be fought.

Friend was born on March 11, 1921, in New York City to Russian immigrants. Her father died of endocarditis (heart inflammation ) when Charlotte was three, a factor that may have influenced her early decision to enter the medical field; at age ten she wrote a school composition entitled, "Why I Want to Become a Bacteriologist." Her mother's job as a pharmacist also exposed Friend to medicine. After graduating from Hunter College in 1944, she immediately enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II, rising to the rank of lieutenant junior grade.

After the war, Friend entered graduate school at Yale University, obtaining her Ph.D. in bacteriology in 1950. Soon afterward, she was hired by the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, and in 1952, became an associate professor in microbiology at Cornell University, which had just set up a joint program with the institute. During that time, Friend became interested in cancer, particularly leukemia, a cancer of blood-forming organs that was a leading killer of children. Her research on the cause of this disease led her to believe that, contrary to the prevailing medical opinion, leukemia in mice is caused by a virus. To confirm her theory, Friend took samples of leukemia tissue from mice and, after putting the material through a filter to remove cells, injected it into healthy mice. These animals developed leukemia, indicating that the cause of the disease was a substance smaller than a cell. Using an electron microscope , Friend was able to discover and photograph the virus she believed responsible for leukemia.

However, when Friend presented her findings at the April 1956, annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, she was denounced by many other researchers, who refused to believe that a virus was responsible for leukemia. Over the next year support for Friend's theory mounted, first as Dr. Jacob Furth declared that his experiments had confirmed the existence of such a virus in mice with leukemia. Even more importantly, Friend was successful in vaccinating mice against leukemia by injecting a weakened form of the virus (now called the "Friend virus") into healthy mice, so they could develop antibodies to fight off the normal virus. Friend's presentation of a paper on this vaccine at the cancer research association's 1957 meeting succeeded in laying to rest the skepticism that had greeted her the previous year.

In 1962, Friend was honored with the Alfred P. Sloan Award for Cancer Research and another award from the American Cancer Society for her work. The next year she became a member of the New York Academy of Sciences, an organization that has members from all fifty states and more than eighty countries. In 1966, Friend left Sloan-Kettering to become a professor and director at the Center for Experimental Cell Biology at the newly formed medical school of New York's Mount Sinai Hospital. During this time, she continued her research on leukemia, and in 1972, she announced the discovery of a method of altering a leukemia mouse cell in a test tube so that it would no longer multiply. Through chemical treatment, the malignant red blood cell could be made to produce hemoglobin, as do normal cells.

Although the virus responsible for leukemia in mice has been discovered, there is no confirmation that a virus causes leukemia in humans. Likewise, her treatment for malignant red blood cells has limited application, because it will not work outside of test tubes. Nonetheless, Friend had pointed out a possible cause of cancer and developed a first step toward fighting leukemia (and possibly other cancers) by targeting specific cells.

In 1976, Friend was elected president of the American Association for Cancer Research, the same organization whose members had so strongly criticized her twenty years earlier. Two years later, she was chosen the first woman president of the New York Academy of Sciences. Friend was long active in supporting other women scientists and in speaking out on women's issues. During her later years, she expressed concern over the tendency to emphasize patient care over basic research, feeling that without sufficient funding for research, new breakthroughs in patient care would be impossible. Friend died on January 13, 1987, of lymphoma.

See also Viral vectors in gene therapy; Virology; Virus replication; Viruses and responses to viral infection

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