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.” 

But after being thrown into oncology care when he treated a 4-year-old with acute leukemia named Jennifer—a chapter that Holland calls “a dramatic part” of his life—Holland had a different answer when Loeb called him back to practice general medicine. “I said, ‘Thank you, Dr Loeb, but I think I’ll stay,’” Holland recalled.

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.”

Another occurrence that made a significant impact on Holland was his young patient Jennifer, whom he treated as an assistant attending physician at Frances Delafield Hospital. “Unhappily, she died,” he said. “I remember distinctly the great trauma to her mother, father, and to me, when this child relapsed.”

But this hospital also was where he met one of his lifelong mentors, the late Alfred Gellhorn, MD. They bonded after Gellhorn reviewed a thesis that Holland had written on the prostate, which followed the findings of Charles B. Huggins, MD, postulating that castration could be used as a treatment for prostate cancer.

It wasn’t long before Holland was offered a senior attending physician position in 1953 at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland, a “terrific experience” that he also credits Gellhorn for granting him. “The National Institutes of Health is a paradise for people who are interested in science and investigation,” said Holland. “It was challenging and tremendous. I learned a great deal there, and I was very happy.”

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.

Joseph H. Burchenal, MD, became chairman of Acute Leukemia Group A, while Frei and Holland shared the chairmanship of Acute Leukemia Group B for 33 years. As the group expanded, Holland changed the name to Cancer and Leukemia Group B, which has since morphed into its current name, Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology (ACTION).

Also as a result of this collaboration, Holland said he and Frei became “brothers joined at the hip,” so much so that they published a book together, Holland-Frei Cancer Medicine, described as a respected reference source for medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, internists, surgical oncologists, and others who treat patients with cancer. The ninth edition was issued earlier this year.


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