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A pioneer in oncology

Medical School alumnus and longtime faculty member B. J. Kennedy, M.D., is widely recognized as the father of medical oncology.

B. J. Kennedy promoted the creation of medical oncology as its own specialty

In the 1960s, cancer most often meant a dire prognosis. Cure rates for many cancers were in the single digits. But in the years that followed, a group of physicians and scientists was working to improve those numbers and prove that cancer didn’t have to be a death sentence.

The University of Minnesota’s B. J. Kennedy, M.D., was a leader in that charge. Kennedy believed that medical oncology was an essential subspecialty of internal medicine, and he tirelessly campaigned for its recognition as a subspecialty, separate from hematology. He believed oncology should encompass a continuum of care—from cancer prevention to detection, treatment, and palliative care.

Because of his forward-thinking approaches to treating people with cancer, Kennedy is widely recognized as the father of medical oncology.

As a historical consultant for the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Gretchen Krueger, Ph.D., has closely studied Kennedy’s contributions to the specialty. She recently gave a special lecture at the University to honor Kennedy and to celebrate the launch of the Academic Health Center History Project (see below).

“Dr. Kennedy and his colleagues were interested in chemotherapy for treating solid tumors, so Dr. Kennedy—I think wisely—promoted that and the total care of the patient,” she says. “His message was one of promise.”

Kennedy and his colleagues worked for years to promote medical oncology as its own subspecialty. In 1972, Kennedy led a successful campaign that resulted in the American Board of Medical Specialties officially recognizing oncology as a subspecialty of internal medicine. The outcome was more medical students and trainees showing interest in oncology and more practicing oncologists—ultimately leading to more sophisticated care, better results for patients, and a more positive mindset about cancer in general.

Kennedy also played a key role in developing a training program for oncology residents and fellows. The oncology fellowship program he developed at the University was one of the first in North America and became a model for other medical institutions around the country.

Kennedy had a long and distinguished career at the University of Minnesota. After earning his undergraduate degree here, he graduated from the Medical School in 1945. Kennedy completed his internship, residency, and fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital but returned to the University as a faculty member in 1952.

He spent the remainder of his career at the Medical School, where he made major contributions to breast cancer treatment through his early research on hormone therapies, and he advanced the use of chemotherapy for treating testicular cancer and brain cancer.

The Masonic Cancer Center Fund, Inc., established a professorship in oncology in 1970 with additional funds to support cancer education and research programs. Kennedy was named the first Masonic Professor of Oncology.

He was head of the Department of Medicine’s Division of Medical Oncology from 1968 until his retirement in 1991. Even after his retirement, he continued to perform research in geriatric oncology until his death from complications of myeloma in 2003.

Bruce Peterson, M.D. , a University oncologist who both trained under and worked with Kennedy, believes Kennedy’s successes stem not only from his having recognized cancer as an area of need, but also from his strong will to do something about it. “Dr. Kennedy had a vision of what could be,” Peterson says. “He became one of the driving forces—if not the driving force—in getting medical oncology recognized as a subspecialty in America. That will probably be his most lasting legacy.”

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