History of the Department

Gerald BronfmanThe McGill University Department of Oncology was founded in 1990 by then Dean of Medicine, Dr. Richard Cruess. It was the first such department in Canada, having been made possible by a generous donation from the Bronfman family in memory of Minda de Gunzburg, daughter of Samuel and Saidye Bronfman and wife of Baron Alain de Gunzburg. A second generous donation from Marjorie and Gerald Bronfman allowed clinical research in oncology at McGill to flourish, and in May 1992, the Gerald Bronfman Centre for Clinical Research in Oncology officially opened its doors. That building is currently the home base for the Department of Oncology and the location of the department’s administrative offices. Other departmental programs currently headquartered in the building include the centralized Clinical Research Program, the Division of Cancer Epidemiology, Cancer Genetics, the Cancer Nutrition-Rehabilitation program, and the McGill Programs in Whole Person Care.

plaques
Neil MacDonald and Mary Jane MacDonald in front of plaques commemorating our benevolent donors.

Other endowments that were established in the early days of the department include the Helen and Sam Steinberg Family Career Award and the Flanders Chair in Palliative Care. The Department of Oncology was formed at a time when, as nearly everywhere in Canada, clinical oncology was largely invested in a department of radiation therapy while medical oncology was either a subunit of hematology or else a standalone division within a department of medicine. The McGill Cancer Centre, originally founded by Dean Samuel Freedman under the directorship of Dr. Phil Gold, was a grouping of affiliated research laboratories at the Medical Faculty Building. In time, the mcc developed a clinical research program under the leadership of Dr. Richard Margolese. With his great success in the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project, he joined with other clinical leaders—Drs. Henry Shibata and Lawrence Hutchison, among them—to generate successful Cancer and Leukemia Group B funding and to initiate participation in the National Cancer Institute of Canada (ncic) at a time when little investigator-initiated clinical research was occurring.

The new Department of Oncology had a classical divisional structure in which the erstwhile Department of Radiation Oncology nobly accepted its role as a division within the department, the mcc became the Division of Basic Cancer Research, and mcc Clinical Research was recognized as the new Division of Clinical Oncology. To these were added the divisions of Epidemiology and of Palliative Care. However, right from the start, it was evident that modifications were required. Within the first 18 months, “Clinical Trials Operations” was established and a Pediatric Oncology division was created, as was a transdivisional section of Experimental Therapeutics, with the goal of generating a greater number of investigator-initiated trials.

Further changes followed, such that by 1995, the Division of Clinical Oncology was split into the divisions of Medical Oncology and of Surgical Oncology. In addition, 13 trans-hospital multidisciplinary research sections were created to develop, review, and oversee clinical research activities for various tumour types—for example, leukemia, lymphoma, melanoma, neuro-oncology, endocrine/biologics, breast cancer, and so on. The department encompassed research and training at the Montreal General Hospital, The Royal Victoria Hospital, St. Mary’s Hospital, and the Sir Mortimer B. Davis–Jewish General Hospital. In addition to Clinical Trials Operations at the Gerald Bronfman Centre, the early 1990s saw the creation of the Clinical Research Unit at the Sir Mortimer B. Davis–Jewish General Hospital, the focal point for phase i and complex phase ii clinical trials.


VSPO Coordinators: (from left to right)
Dr. Thierry Alcindor, Winie Celestin,
Dr. Normand Blais and Anastasia Zammit
As clinical care and research in oncology were being structured and expanded, the department also gave top priority to oncology teaching and training. By the mid-1990s, a Medical Education Committee to address undergraduate education and four oncology residency training programs (medical, radiation, surgical, and hematologic oncology) were established. Furthermore, a new lecture series, the bi-annual Cedars Visiting Professorships was created in the early 1990s to supplement Oncology Grand Rounds. Over the years, that lecture series changed and evolved to become the Visiting Speakers Program in Oncology. The latter program, a joint effort with Université de Montréal, sponsors about 20 visiting professors annually.

Source: Batist, G. and Shinder, GA. The McGill University Department of Oncology: structure depicts the shape of evolving knowledge. Current Oncology; 15(3): 28-35, 2008.