Sunday, January 19, 2014

The American Oncologic Hospital



     The American Oncologic Hospital (AOH) was founded in 1904 as the first cancer hospital in the United States. It was "devoted exclusively to the treatment of cancer and other tumors, and research into the nature and causes of those affections." The charter for the AOH stated that patients would be admitted free of charge “without regard to race, creed, or color if such persons are in indigent circumstances.” Patients who could afford to pay would be admitted and their payments would be used to enlarge and maintain the hospital. At the time, few hospitals could care for cancer patients and the disease was considered incurable. One of the problems was the need to provide aseptic surgery. To treat cancer patients, hospitals would have to have a separate staff of physicians and nurses to guard against the infection of surgical wounds. (Inquirer, Nov. 11, 1904)

First Home of the American Oncologic Hospital, 45th and Chestnut Sts
     The first home of the AOH was at 45th and Chestnut streets in an early Victorian mansion. At the inauguration of the hospital, Dr. G. Benton Massey stated that there were already hospitals for sufferers of tuberculosis and other diseases, but cancer patients were neglected. “The sufferer from cancer alone has cried to deaf ears from the hovels of the poor, from the residences of the well-to-do, and from the palaces of the rich.” He emphasized the role the AOH would play in educating people about the potential dangers of “moles, warts, and other apparently harmless growths.” (Inquirer, Jan. 3, 1905) The AOH aimed to pursue several lines of research including both the “parasitic and the autocytic theories.” The former was a germ theory of cancer whereas the later ascribed cancer to nervous degeneration. Early stage surface tumors could be treated by “electric sterilization with electrolytic salts of mercury; by Rontgen rays, by emanations of radium, [or] by the knife….”(Inquirer, July 22, 1904) During 1905, the AOH admitted 106 patients include some from as far away as Iowa and Florida.

     The AOH quickly outgrew its first home. In 1906, Elizabeth Anderson, a thrifty domestic servant, donated $40,000 (the equivalent of almost $1 million today) which enabled the AOH to consider plans for expansion. Her estate, which totaled over $76,000, was donated to numerous causes, including $5,000 to Presbyterian Hospital and $1,000 to the Old Man’s Home at Powelton and Saunders Avenues.  In 1911, the AOH purchased a stone mansion on a large plot of land at 33rd St. and Powelton Avenue. At the time, it was described as "one of the largest of the many fine residential properties in the section." In 1858, the mansion was the home of John C. Keffer, a writer and newspaper editor. In the early 1860s, he also ran a liquor store and distillery. At the end of the Civil War, Keffer moved his family to Montgomery, Alabama. As representative of the Union League in New York he played a central role in the early period of Reconstruction in that state. In the 1870s, he moved his family to Cleveland where he was an editor known for his large personal library.

American Oncologic Hospital, 33rd and Powelton (1914 addition at left)

      For many decades, the mansion was the home of the family of Edward Lewis, a wholesale iron and steel merchant. He retired from business in 1876 at age 57 and for many years was the head of the property committee of the Philadelphia School Board. He was also on the board of the Women's Medical College – his daughter Bertha was a graduate. (His brother, Enoch Lewis, later moved to 3405 Powelton Ave.) Edward died in 1901 and his wife, Elizabeth, died in 1903. In 1911, the family sold the mansion for $40,000 to the AOH which assumed a mortgage for $32,000.

     In 1914, the Oncologic Hospital began construction of a new two-story building. It included the finest operating room in the city, special facilities for x-ray and radium treatments and eight additional beds. The AOH was a leader in research -- particularly the use of x-ray and radium in treating tumors. The new building contained the radium therapy which had previously caused problems for the x-ray work. An article in the Inquirer at the time explained that “[f]or some time past it has been the custom at this institution to treat cancer by placing the radium on the tumor, rather than injecting it into the body as is done in some instances.”

    One of the leading experts in the use of radium was Dr. William S. Newcomet who did much of his early work at the AOH. Newcomet’s father, Henry Walborn Neukomet, was on the medical faculty at Penn. When he died in 1885 at age 46 Elizabeth Neukomet went to with their three children to Germany. William attended the University of Berlin (1888-1889) where he studied chemistry and microbiology. On the family’s return in 1890, they moved to 3229 Powelton Ave. and William attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1899, he purchased 3501 Baring St. where he and his wife lived for more than 50 years. They had two children, one of whom died in infancy. Newcomet wrote the first comprehensive book in English on the use of radium in treating tumors (1914). Beginning in 1915, his primary appointment was Director of the Lucy B. Henderson Foundation for Radiation Therapy at Jefferson Medical College.

     In 1930, the University of Pennsylvania received an anonymous donation of $210,000 to a fund for cancer research created in 1928 by Irenee du Pont. (As a child, she lived at 3500 Powelton Ave.) The funds were used to equip a new clinic at the AOH for modern diagnosis and treatment of tumors. Continuing the focus on surface cancers, the chief of the clinic was Dr. George M. Dorrance, Professor of Maxillo-facial surgery at the Penn School of Dentistry. (NYT, Jan. 26, 1930)

Brady A. Hughes, Sr. Using the "Radium Pack," to Treat a Patient

at the American Oncologic Hospital in the 1930s.

      The American Oncologic Hospital remained a leader in the use of radium for decades.  In 1935, it was one of only seven institutions in the U.S. to offer “radium pack” or “teleradium” therapy which allowed treatment of inner organs without burning the skin. The New York Times explained that the teleradium employed “portions of radium held in place by a disk, protected by a covering of lead six inches thick, with a small opening through which the radium rays pass…. The value of the radium pack… is that it permits the use of the ‘hardest’ gamma rays, those that penetrate most deeply into the body, while at the same time it permits the filtering out of the ‘soft’ gamma rays, which injure the skin.” (NYT, June 9, 1935)

      The radium used in the treatments was very expensive. In 1932, The New York Times reported that a new cleaning woman at the AOH had accidently swept four needles containing radium into the trash. They were valued at $30,000. Three of the needles were recovered.


      In 1967, the American Oncologic Hospital built a new path-breaking “patient-centered” hospital and joined with the Institute for Cancer Research to form Fox Chase Cancer Center. Today the buildings at 33rd and Powelton belong to Drexel University.

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