Determined to find a cure, Sidney Farber, MD, dedicated his energy, time, research and nearly his entire professional life to the fight against cancer. Farber’s hard work paid off in the 1940s, when he used chemotherapy to achieve remission in young patients with leukemia.
Farber was born on Sept. 20, 1903, in Buffalo, N.Y., and was the third of 14 children. He graduated from the University of Buffalo in 1923. He studied for one year at the University of Heidelberg and Freiberg in Germany and then spent the remainder of his medical school career at Harvard University, graduating in 1927. Farber completed his graduate training at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (now Brigham and Women’s Hospital) in Boston.
In 1928, Farber was appointed resident pathologist at The Children’s Hospital and assistant pathologist at Harvard Medical School, both in Boston. In 1929, he was appointed as the first full-time pathologist at The Children’s Hospital. Farber spent his entire 45-year career at these two facilities.
Source: National Cancer Institute
When leukemia was first identified in 1845, the prognosis was grim. Patients often died within weeks of diagnosis, many succumbing to massive hemorrhage and intercurrent infection. Medicine could offer little hope.
By the 1940s, not much had changed. Aside from cortisone therapy, doctors could do little to help their young patients with leukemia, according the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute website.
Farber saw things differently. Studies performed during World War II showed that pernicious anemia and tropical anemia could be cured with vitamin B12 and folic acid, according to the website. Farber knew that folic acid stimulates bone marrow maturation and growth. He thought that if a drug could chemically block folic acid, it would halt the production of the abnormal bone marrow associated with leukemia.
A pharmaceutical manufacturer was testing a drug called aminopterin, which possessed the properties Farber was seeking. He administered the agent to 16 terminally ill children; 10 children went into temporary remission.
Farber published his findings in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1948. Initially, some in the scientific community regarded his findings with disbelief, but many now regard him as the father of modern chemotherapy.
An innovator in many areas, Farber devised the idea of “total care,” which he defined as meeting every patient need.
“A generalization may be formulated for guidance, even in the absence of truly curative therapy: everything that can be done with the aid of medical tools now available should be carried out for the comfort, relief of pain and prolongation of life of the patient with acute leukemia,” he wrote in an article that appeared in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.
He was aware of how much the total care concept cost caregivers and the hospitals; Farber remained devoted to the care of these sick patients and their families, however.
“The immediate goal must be prolongation of life — hopefully, good life,” Farber wrote. “Everything that can be done to achieve this end must be provided until this goal is supplanted by attainment of the only adequate solution of the problem: eradication, prevention and/or complete cure.”
Under the banner of total care, Farber felt that all care for patients should be provided in one location, according to the Dana-Farber website. All caregivers — clinicians, nutritionists, social workers and counselors — should participate in treatment decisions.
In the mid-1950s, Farber put his theory into practice on one floor of The Children’s Hospital. It has since become the standard for pediatric cancer care worldwide.
Farber’s other work in cancer research included a 1955 discovery that actinomycin D and radiation therapy could result in remission in patients with Wilms’ tumor.
His work and interests in pathology extended beyond cancer. Along with his colleagues, Farber was the first to characterize cystic fibrosis as a generalized disorder. They also described the incidence of Eastern equine encephalitis in humans and highlighted the significance of hyaline membrane disease in newborns, according to George E. Foley, ScD, who wrote Farber’s obituary in Cancer Research. Farber and colleagues also studied pediatric cardiac surgery and sudden death syndrome in infants, according to Foley.
In addition to his research, Farber served on various study sections and councils for the NIH, the FDA and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, according to Foley. He was also a member of the National Advisory Cancer Council and the National Advisory Health Council. Farber testified before Congress several times. He was a past president of the National Cancer Society, and he was involved in varying degrees with many other groups and organizations.
The eponym Farber’s disease, which is also known as Farber’s lipogranulomatosis or Farber-Uzman syndrome, is a rare, inherited metabolic disorder in which patients accumulate excess amounts of lipids in the joints, tissues and central nervous systems. It is usually diagnosed at birth or shortly thereafter. Symptoms include failure to thrive, a hoarse cry and impaired motor and mental ability. Farber first wrote about the disease in 1952 and again in 1957.
Farber also devised a method for diagnosing intestinal atresia in newborns called the Farber’s test. The absence of swallowed vernix cells in a newborn’s meconium indicated intestinal atresia. He wrote about this in 1933.
Farber married Norma Holzman in 1928; and the two had four children.
He died while working in his office on March 30, 1973. Farber was 69 years old. – by Colleen Owens
For more information:
- Farber S. Management of the acute leukemia patient and family. CA Cancer J Clin. 1965;15:14-17.
- Foley GE. Obituary: Sidney Farber, MD. Cancer Res. 1974;34:659-661.
- Sidney Farber (1903-1973). CA Cancer J Clin. 1974;24:294-296.
- For more information regarding the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, visit www.dana-farber.org