Writing the Book on Cancer Care: Holland Reminisces

Gina Columbus @ginacolumbusonc
Published: Friday, Aug 04, 2017
James F. Holland, MD

James F. Holland, MD
James F. Holland, MD, stumbled into the field of oncology by chance. As a captain in the Army Medical Corps during the Korean War, he was preparing to head home from Europe and return to his third year of residency at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. But when President Harry S. Truman authorized an extension, Holland had to write a letter to Robert F. Loeb, MD, then a professor of medicine at the institution, informing him that he wouldn’t be back to school. Loeb couldn’t hold his spot, but instead offered him a position at Frances Delafield Hospital, then at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. “I’ll call you back when somebody gets tuberculosis or a psychiatric disorder,” his mentor told Holland. “They always do.” 

Holland, of course, did more than just stay in the oncology field. In a career that has spanned more than 60 years, Holland has emerged as a groundbreaking and prolific researcher in developing combination chemotherapies for patients with leukemias. Today, the 92-year-old researcher and physician is the Distinguished Professor of Neoplastic Diseases at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. 

Starting in the Trenches

The choice of specialty was not the only time that Holland’s path could have veered away from oncology. In fact, he could have gone in an entirely different career direction. When he was attending Princeton University in the 1940s, he was also interested in becoming a lawyer. “My father was a lawyer,” said the Morristown, New Jersey, native. “But I had a wonderful biology teacher at Princeton, and I found some of the information that I learned and the way it was taught to be of great interest. Therefore, I chose medicine rather than the law. A good teacher really can inspire.”

At the NCI, Holland was the first researcher to put 2 drugs together for patients with acute leukemia. “When I went to the NCI, I was lucky to be assigned to help a major league scientist, Dr Lloyd Law. He was the first man to [combine] 2 drugs in treating chemotherapy in mice, and he showed that if you used drug A or drug B together, the outcome was better.”

Setting a New Course

After Holland left the NCI for a position at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in 1954, Emil Frei III, MD, continued his research at NCI. They started a significant collaboration: the first inter-institutional program involving chemotherapy as cancer therapy.
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