Persistence and the Quest for Innovation Guided a Radiotherapy Pioneer

Brielle Urciuoli
Published: Monday, May 07, 2018
Herman D. Suit, MD, MSc, PhD
Herman D. Suit, MD, MSc, PhD
As he was growing up, Herman D. Suit, MD, MSc, PhD, took to heart his mother’s advice: “If you really want something, ask for it politely and repeatedly.” When he was recruited to Massachusetts General Hospital in 1970, he added that the requests not only be polite and repeated, but in writing. By employing that strategy throughout his career—combined with his carefully planned work and the support of numerous friends—he obtained virtually everything he requested along the way to changing the course of radiation oncology.

During a career that has spanned more than 60 years, Suit helped launch proton therapy as a cancer treatment, introduced preoperative radiation and conservative surgery for patients with soft tissue sarcoma, and developed the intraoperative and preoperative use of electron beam irradiation as methods of reducing the scope of surgical resection.

Along the way, he managed the development of the world-class radiation oncology department at Mass General, was the principal founder of the Connective Tissue Oncology Society and a co-founder of the Particle Therapy Clinical Oncology Group, and served as president of the American Society of Radiation Oncology and the Radiation Research Society.

Throughout his career, Suit has been on a quest to deliver the best care possible to his patients, a mission that includes innovation. “Physicians should view our current best treatment as obsolete and use this as a provocation for active effort to develop superior management strategies,” he wrote in an essay published in Radiotherapy and Oncology in 2011.

A Stellar Student

Born in Houston, Texas, in 1929, Suit distinguished himself academically as an honor student who accelerated his way through the public school system and went on to receive his bachelor of science from the University of Houston in about 2 years. There, he developed a deep interest in organic and biochemistry while taking a course given by Professor Eby Nell McElrath, whom he describes as the most impressive teacher he had—she made the subject truly stimulating to her students, Suit recalled. That led to Suit to plan a career in a medical specialty that was based heavily in science, preferably biochemistry. In 1948, at 19 years of age, he entered Baylor College of Medicine.

In that first year, Suit requested admission into the graduate program so that he could earn a master of science degree in biochemistry as a secondary goal to his studies as a medical student. The chair of biochemistry was not impressed with Suit’s résumé, which listed only freshman-level physics and math. Suit was informed that he would have to take a second year in math and physics at the University of Houston. During his second summer, he was to attend the University of Texas at Austin and take atomic and nuclear physics. Near the end of one of his textbooks, he latched on to a small section that discussed the use of radiation to treat patients with cancer with some impressive success.

“I read this and thought, ‘Golly, that is fantastic!’ I had seen patients who had had their larynx removed in its entirety as their treatment for laryngeal cancer with loss of a critical function—ie, their voice. Apparently, comparable cure results could be achieved by use of radiation alone with clearly superior functional and cosmetic results,” he said.

“So, I became intensely interested about this and rapidly learned more,” Suit said. “I decided to change my goal to a physics-based medical field, vis-à-vis radiation oncology. I was puzzled in that radiation therapy had not been mentioned in any lecture that I had attended at Baylor.”

In his fourth year at Baylor and confident of graduating with his medical and a master of science degrees, Suit faced another decision: where to study radiation oncology. Ever since childhood, he had believed the University of Oxford held one of the highest concentrations of intellect on the planet. The harsh reality, though, was that his family could not afford to send him to England. But a determined Suit applied for a funded position for graduate study, and—to his enormous surprise and pleasure—his request was granted. He was accepted.

Meanwhile, Suit wrapped up his time at Baylor. Less than 2 months into his rotating internship, he was assigned to administer anesthesia alone to surgical cases, an area in which he’d received minimal instruction. That made Suit extremely nervous. “I had no real training in anesthesia and was scared to death to even try, but had no real option!” he recalls. “Things were much different back then.”

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