HISTORY

The Ben May Department for Cancer Research was formally established in 1951 with funds provided by Alabama businessman and philanthropist Ben May. It continues to receive generous support from the Ben May Charitable Trust. The work done by the collection of laboratories within the Ben May Department for Cancer Research has advanced cancer treatment by providing answers to fundamental biological questions and by finding applications for groundbreaking scientific discoveries.

Dedicating a cancer laboratory to exploring biology's most fundamental behaviors was the idea of a surgeon. The late Charles B. Huggins, the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Surgery and 1966 Nobel Laureate in Physiology and Medicine, realized that cancer could be cured only through understanding how organisms function and why they misfunction. He sought scientific breakthroughs, answers large enough to change the course of cancer treatment.

"What is cancer research? It is fundamental science," Huggins said in 1966. "Everything is cancer research. It is not necessary to have cancer cells on one's hands to advance the cure of cancer. Cancer research is basic science-honestly done with simplicity and elegance and proof."

Dr. Huggins became the first Director of the Ben May Laboratory for Cancer Research, a position he would hold until 1969. During his tenure as Director, he declared the priority of the Lab to be basic research, stating that "Discovery is our business." and charging his colleagues, students, and post-doctoral fellows to "make damn good discoveries." The words "discovery is our business" would become the lasting motto of the Department.

From the start, the Ben May Laboratory was interdisciplinary in nature, uniting specialists in biochemistry, organic chemistry, physiology, pathology, pharmacology and medicine. Among the researchers at the laboratory during its first decade were Nien-Chu Yang, Ph.D. '52 now the Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in Chemistry, who worked with Huggins on studies of why certain chemicals cause cancer; physiologist Dwight Ingle, who discovered the biological effects of the hormones cortisone and hydrocortisone; and organic chemist Elwood Jensen, Ph.D. '49, who first isolated the cellular receptor for estrogen, and who succeeded Huggins as Director of the Ben May Laboratory. Prominent scientists who have worked in the Lab. but who are no longer at the University, include biochemists Eugene Kennedy (currently at Harvard), Albert Lehninger (Johns Hopkins) and Frank Putnam (Indiana University) and pharmacologist Paul Talalay (Johns Hopkins).

In 1971, the Lab moved from two floors of the Nathan Goldblatt Memorial Hospital to a $3.7 million, four-story addition to the north wing of the Hospitals. Its named was changed from the Ben May Laboratory for Cancer Research to the Ben May lnstitute in 1986. Frank Fitch, M.D. '53, S.M. '57, Ph.D. '60, the third director of the Ben May Department, initiated the name change to reflect BMl's growth from Huggins' one laboratory to a collection of Iaboratories working in various areas of cancer research.

In 2005, the Ben May Department moved to the Center for Integrated Sciences. The building is designed to enhance collaboration and ease the sharing of ideas among researchers -- biological and physical scientists working in fields ranging from condensed-matter physics to synthetic chemistry to complexity theory. The researchers will devote themselves to developing high-impact projects of extraordinary complexity that overflow the boundaries between particular disciplines.

Marsha Rosner, the fifth and current Director, says Huggins' motto remains the mission of the Ben May Department for Cancer Research. "At one time, everyone was so confident that there would be one big magic bullet that would cure all cancers. Now we realize that we don't understand enough about why cells grow and don't grow--we need to learn more about the fundamentals first. The Ben May Department is, has been, and I hope will continue to be a strong, dynamic, basic research center for the study of cancer biology."