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Resolving Mysteries

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Richard Gilbertson, head of the Cancer Center at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital here in Memphis, is surely one of the world leaders personally — as St. Jude is institutionally — in the resolution of the myriad mysteries that stand in the way of humanity's coming to grips with the disease of cancer.

"Diseases," actually, because, as Gilbertson emphasized in a luncheon address this week to members of the Memphis Rotary Club, the dire phenomenon to which we have given the name "cancer" is actually several diseases. Even those species which bear the same scientific nomenclature differ radically in their apparent origin and course from person to person and from organ to organ. Much of the difficulty in prescribing effective treatments or finding "cures" stems from that very fact. Another way of rendering that awesome complexity was conveyed in Gilbertson's statement that the DNA of a given cancer cell, any component of which could be the culprit in a quite cluttered "crime scene," would stretch from here to the sun back and forth four and a half times.

The good news Gilbertson brought to his listeners was that major advances were made in the mapping and control of cancers, children's and otherwise, from about 1975 to roughly 10 years ago. The bad news was that progress in treatment methods and reduction of fatalities had more or less "plateaued" since then. Clearly a new paradigm is in order, and the odds for finding further answers to the mystery of cancer in the laboratories and patient facilities of St. Jude are as good as anywhere on earth.

On another, more mundane note, Gilbertson was able to clarify a long-standing mystery of another sort regarding St. Jude itself. Anyone who has seen any of the many, many public service announcements, information campaigns, or fund-raising drives that have been featured on national television or elsewhere in the media for the last several decades might have been struck by an unusual omission: At no time, ever, is the location of St. Jude mentioned in these various kinds of official publicity. Not by Marlo Thomas, daughter of founder Danny Thomas. Not by any of the NFL analysts or other media figures who regularly tout the hospital and its invaluable operations before large audiences.

In the question and answer session following his remarks to the Rotarians, Gilbertson was asked about this. Instead of dodging the issue, he said, "I think I can answer that." And he thereupon explained that the omission of a place identifier is indeed a matter of clear purpose. As he put it, fund-raising campaigns in particular tend to succeed to the extent that the causes they represent are generalized to the maximum degree. Hence, "St. Jude" will tend to appeal to donors worldwide more than, say, "Boston University" or any other place-specific name. Like "St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee."

There was a time, one Rotarian remembered, when founder Danny Thomas made it a point of pride to mention Memphis in relation to his creation, named after the patron saint of lost causes. That was then, this, a more media-conscious time, is now. In any case, we can still rejoice in the presence of this remarkable institution in our midst.

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