Our 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 and from Rose Geraci. The collective work done by the 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. 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, Huggins 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, 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 in 1969. Prominent scientists who also worked in the Lab, 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 BMI's growth from Huggins' one laboratory to a collection of laboratories working in various areas of cancer research. He was succeeded by Jeffrey Bluestone, Ph.D. in 1995, who along with Frank Fitch, added immunology to the expanding areas of research focus. Bluestone renamed the BMI the Ben May Institute for Cancer Research (BMICR) to reflect our overall focus on cancer. Marsha Rosner, Ph.D. succeeded Bluestone in 2000.


In 2005, the Ben May Institute moved to the newly constructed Gordon Center for Integrative Sciences. This multidisciplinary building was designed to enhance collaborations and the sharing of ideas among diverse researchers -- biological and physical scientists working across a wide range of fields. Researchers in the GCIS continue to devote themselves to developing high-impact projects that merge the boundaries between multiple disciplines. A final name change of the BMICR to the Ben May Department for Cancer Research occurred in 2006, when we were granted departmental status by the University.


In 2013, Geoffrey Greene, Ph.D. who trained as a postdoctoral scholar under Elwood Jensen, became the current chair of the Ben May Department for Cancer Research. Reflecting the ever increasing research diversity among our faculty, our mission remains the same and we continue to be a strong, dynamic, basic research center focused on the study of cancer biology and the prevention, treatment and eradication of cancer.