‘A giant of modern medicine’: Dr. Emil Freireich gave young leukemia patients hope with his groundbreaking research. He died at 93.
Dr. Emil J. Freireich, a legendary cancer doctor whose groundbreaking research gave hope to generations of children diagnosed with leukemia, died Feb. 1. He was 93.
He passed away peacefully at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where he worked for 50 years, from 1965 to 2015.
“Dr. Freireich was a giant of modern medicine whose impact on the field of cancer is beyond compare,” said Dr. Peter Pisters, president of MD Anderson. “His passing will be felt around the world within the MD Anderson community.”
As the founding father of modern clinical cancer research, Freireich’s introduced the idea of treating childhood leukemia – a lethal blood cancer – with combination chemotherapy, in which cancer drugs are given simultaneously instead of one at a time.
Born to Hungarian immigrants in 1927, he grew up in inner-city Chicago during the Great Depression. Freireich attended the University of Illinois in Champaign at 16 and graduated from the University of Illinois College of Medicine at 22 in 1949. According to MD Anderson, he waited tables and “did other odd jobs” to pay for school.
He met his wife, Haroldine Cunningham, during a fellowship in hematology at Massachusetts Memorial Hospital in Boston. She was a nurse.
In 1955, Freireich was hired to care for children in the leukemia ward at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.
“Leukemia at that time was a horrible illness – a death sentence,” Freireich said in a 2015 interview. “Most children lived only eight weeks after being diagnosed. Ninety-nine percent died within a year.”
Leukemia prevents the blood from clotting and causes many patients to bleed to death, he explained. Freireich believed this was due to insufficient platelets, tiny blood cells that help the body form blood clots.
The medical community quickly dismissed this idea, but Freireich proved them wrong by mixing platelets from his own blood with blood from sick children. The bleeding stopped without fail. With further research, Freireich also discovered platelets didn’t work unless they were used within 48 hours of donation.
It wasn’t the first time the medical establishment was proven wrong by Freireich’s pioneering ideas. He also was criticized for combining four drugs in a 1961 trial investigating childhood leukemia.
“They said I was unethical and inhumane and would kill the children,” Freireich said. “Instead, 90% of them went into remission.”
Today, the American Cancer Society reports the five-year survival rate for children with lymphocytic leukemia, the most common childhood leukemia, is about 90% overall.
Over the years, Freireich contributed to more than 600 scientific papers and more than 100 books. He’s received numerous awards and prizes for his research including the first National Institutes of Health Distinguished Alumnus Award, the David A. Karnofsky Memorial Award from the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the Robert Roesler de Villiers Award from the Leukemia Society of America.
MD Anderson also created the Emil J Freireich Award for Excellence in Education to recognize members of the teaching faculty for excellence in education contributions.
Even after retiring in 2015, MD Anderson says Freireich consistently visited to the campus to teach and consult.
“His wisdom, passion and exacting standards set a bar for all of us to emulate in our ongoing efforts to end cancer,” Pisters said. “We mourn his passing, but his legacy will live forever.”
Dr. Stephen Sallan, chief of staff emeritus at Dana Farber Cancer Institute, said Freireich was funny, affectionate, warm and overall a “great human being.” His creativity inspired many physicians like Sallan and saved many children’s lives.
“The few of us who are old enough to have the chance to know him over the years recognize that he was really a giant in the field,” he said. “There’s a lot of children living around the world that can thank their lucky stars that Emil Freireich lived.”
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