Huggins, Charles Brenton

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HUGGINS, Charles Brenton

(b. 22 September 1901 in Halifax, Nova Scotia; d. 12 January 1997 in Chicago, Illinois), oncologist, surgeon, educator, and author who was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1966 for his work using hormones in cancer treatment.

Huggins was the elder of two sons of Charles Edward Huggins, a pharmacist, and Bessie Marie Spencer, a homemaker. In 1920 Huggins earned a B.A. from Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and then went to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to attend Harvard Medical School. In 1924 Huggins earned an M.A. and an M.D. from Harvard. He completed an internship at the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor, where he became a surgery instructor in 1926. The following year Huggins became an instructor of surgery at the University of Chicago Medical School and married Margaret Wellman on 29 July 1927. The couple had one son and one daughter. In 1933 Huggins became a U.S. citizen and achieved the rank of full professor.

When Huggins began his cancer research, little was known about the connection between hormones and cancer, but he was determined to unlock these mysteries. In 1939, using dogs as test subjects, Huggins and his colleagues found a way to separate the prostate gland from the urethra and urinary tract. A stumbling block soon presented itself—some of the dogs developed prostate tumors. Despite this apparent setback, Huggins believed he might be on the track of what caused tumors and discovered that the male sex hormone testosterone seemed to be present in high amounts in cancerous prostates.

In 1943 the National Academy of Sciences gave Huggins the first Charles L. Mayer Award in cancer research. The following year he performed the first procedure to remove both adrenal glands, or a bilateral adrenalectomy. In 1946 Huggins served briefly as a professor of urological surgery and the director of the department of urology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. He was about to embark on the cancer research that would lead to revolutionary treatments in the 1960s.

From 1936 to 1962 Huggins was a professor of surgery at the University of Chicago, where from 1951 to 1969 he was the director of the Ben May Laboratory for Cancer Research. During this time Huggins focused on studying breast cancer, which had the highest incidence rate of any neoplastic disease in both men and women. Together with two students, D. M. Bergenstal and Thomas Dao, he developed a treatment involving the removal of both ovaries and both adrenal glands that improved prospects for patients with advanced breast cancer. In about 30 to 40 percent of the cases, patients in his studies experienced definite, long-lasting improvement.

Surgery was not the only cancer treatment Huggins developed during the 1960s. While at the Ben May Laboratory, he experimented with cancer in female rats. He found that one dose of 7, 12-dimethylbens(a)anthracene (DMBA) quickly caused mammary tumors to develop, and that the cancer responded to hormonal activity. His work was the basis for the development of drugs that block estrogen production in order to treat breast cancer.

Because of Huggins's work in the 1960s, doctors began to view cancers differently. His research on cancers in the prostate and breast changed the widely held belief in the medical field that cancers were self-perpetuating. As the decade progressed, doctors began to understand that hormones played a large role in the formation and growth of cancerous tissues. Radical surgery was not always necessary to treat cancer; hormone treatments were often very effective.

Also in the 1960s scientists began questioning whether birth control pills increased the chances of developing cancer in the breasts and reproductive organs. As the controversy grew, Huggins decided to investigate the problem. With more than thirty years of experience studying how hormones affect cancer, he was prepared to interpret the evidence. After studying data collected from thousands of women who were taking birth control pills, Huggins concluded that the pills had no cancer-causing effects. He also suggested that in some cases they might even keep tumors small.

It was not until the 1960s that all of the research Huggins had conducted in prior decades was recognized. In 1962, the year he became the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor at Ben May Laboratory, he earned the Valentine Prize from the New York Academy of Medicine and the Hunter Award from the American Therapeutic Society. For his contributions to science, in 1963 he received the Lasker Clinical Research Award, a high honor in the medical field. The following year Huggins was given the honor of laurea from the University of Bologna and an award from the Rudolf Virchow Society. In 1966 he shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Peyton Rous, who had researched the viral causes of cancer fifty-five years earlier.

The Nobel Prize recognized Huggins for discovering the connections between hormones and cancer. The Nobel committee cited his "fundamental discoveries concerning the hormone dependence of normal and neoplastic cells in experimental animals and their immediate practical application to the treatment of human prostatic and breast cancer." The committee praised Huggins for giving so many patients with advanced cancer a chance to improve their lives by offering them new treatment options.

Huggins never forgot the source of his scientific achievements—unearthing scientific truths. "Discovery is for the single mind, perhaps in company with a few students," he told colleagues. "Don't write books. Don't teach hundreds of students. Discovery is our business." After the 1960s Huggins changed his career direction. From 1972 to 1979 he was the chancellor of Acadia University. He also resumed his earlier bone research and helped to find substances that cause bone formation. This research was helpful in orthopedic, periodontal, and reconstructive surgery.

Huggins wrote almost 300 medical articles and scientific books, including Frontiers of Mammary Cancer (1961), The Scientific Contributions of the Ben May Laboratory for Cancer Research (1961), and Experimental Leukemia and Mammary Cancer: Induction, Prevention, and Cure (1979). He received two gold medals for research from the American Medical Association, the Order of Merit from Germany, and the Order of the Sun from Peru. Huggins was an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh and London and received many honorary degrees. He died at his home in Chicago at the age of ninety-five.

Because of his work during the 1960s, Huggins led the medical community to develop treatments for cancer based on the chemical signals the body sends out. Distinguished by his 1966 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, Huggins changed the direction of cancer research forever and extended the lives of many cancer patients.

Huggins's biography may be found in Current Biography (1965). An updated biography appears in Tyler Wasson, ed., Nobel Prize Winners: An H. W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary (1987), and Frank N. Magill, ed., The Nobel Prize Winners: Physiology or Medicine (1991). See also Paul Talalay and Guy Williams-Ashman, "1966 Nobel Laureates in Medicine or Physiology," Science (21 Oct. 1966). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune (both 15 Jan. 1997).

A. E. Schulthies