Cancer pioneer to get award

Joel Sawyer

Had B.J. Kennedy been a better math student, he might have become an architect. Instead, the man called the father of oncology by his colleagues is a world-famous University physician, renowned for his pioneering study of cancer.
Kennedy, a Regents professor of medicine emeritus and Masonic Cancer Center professor of oncology emeritus, has been a pioneer in the field of medical oncology, — the study of tumors — for more than 40 years.
And this month, his lifetime of work as an educator, physician and researcher is being honored by his peers with the 1996 Charles Bolles Bolles-Rogers Award.
The award, given annually by the Hennepin Medical Society, recognizes leadership and outstanding achievements in the field of medicine in the Twin Cities area.
“He’s one of the giants of American cancer, who has done an outstanding job building cancer programs and clinical research programs at the University and nationally,” said Dr. Jonathan Ravdin, chairman of the University’s department of internal medicine.
Kennedy was instrumental in developing the use of hormone treatments and chemotherapy to treat and cure breast and testis cancer, leukemia and brain tumors.
“He was one of the initial people who devoted their practice to that area of medicine,” said Dr. Marvin Goldberg, University Hospital chief of staff.
“It’s kind of fun” to receive awards like this, Kennedy said. It shows a “recognition of my accomplishments, something other people think is important.”
Kennedy’s accomplishments might never have been; if not for his poor grasp of higher mathematics pushing the aspiring architect away from the drafting table and toward the operating table. It also did not hurt that he grew up in Rochester, Minn., home of the Mayo Clinic.
Kennedy, 75, graduated from the University Medical School in 1945, when, he said, undergraduate tuition was $33 a quarter. Kennedy performed research and received his residency training from 1945-52 at several medical schools and hospitals, including Massachusetts General Hospital.
He returned to the University in 1952 as an assistant professor of medicine. Kennedy became a full professor of medicine and the director of the division of oncology in the medical school in 1967, a position he held until 1990.
Kennedy led a successful campaign in 1972 to have oncology recognized as a subspecialty of internal medicine by the American Board of Medical Specialties. In recognition, he was appointed the first chairman of a subcommittee that has gone on to certify more than 6,000 oncologists.
Kennedy was also instrumental in the development of the University’s Masonic Cancer Center, which was built in 1958. “Doctors were not very supportive of cancer patients then,” Kennedy said. Cancer treatment was a “new and unproven field. We had to build the model” of treatment, he said.
Although Kennedy was forced to retire from the medical school faculty in 1991 because of his age, he is still an active physician at the cancer center. He sees patients twice a week and lectures nationally about issues such as geriatric oncology and hormone therapies.
The most annoying thing about mandatory retirement, Kennedy said, is not the loss of salary and faculty status, but rather the long walks to work. “They took away my parking,” he said.
Kennedy has no intention of retiring to his cabin anytime soon. “I do what I do because I like it,” he said, and added that he will continue to work “as long as I feel I’m contributing something” to medicine.
Kennedy has received numerous awards in his career, including a 1996 Mastership in the American College of Physicians. The University has also honored Kennedy, giving him an Alumni of Notable Achievement award in 1994 and an Outstanding Achievement Award in 1995.
Kennedy was nominated by a committee composed of administrators of hospitals in Anoka, Carver, Hennepin, Scott and Western Dakota counties, and top officials from the medical society.
“It’s a recognition by his colleagues of the contributions he’s made,” said Jack Davis, CEO of the society.
The medical society is an organization that consists of 3,800 Twin Cities physicians and promotes physician and patient issues.
The award, a 14-inch silver bowl, will be presented to Kennedy Oct. 21 at a general staff meeting of the University Hospital.