Historical Leaders in the UAB Department of Radiation Oncology (Alphabetical)

History is often made notable by events, but the history itself is made by people.

The following capsules describe some of the key leaders from the past and present that have sculpted this organization into what it is today. New leaders have emerged in recent years as well and their stories will be added in the years that follow. But the focus here is to pay homage to those that we see when looking back in time upon the roads we’ve traveled.

Norbert Black, RT, Technical Director, 1969-1993

His Radiation Therapist license number was “1”, attesting to his early entry into an emerging field. “Norbert Black was the most conscientious, good-hearted person. He ran everything with an even hand, and that’s what made him such a good leader,” stated Dr. Salter. Mirroring those thoughts, Dr. Spencer added that “Norbert was such an integral part of the culture here. He would come in early every morning and warm up the machines, and then do whatever else needed to be done.”

Jill Caranto noted that “he had the best work-ethic. He was great at making our pediatric patients feel at ease. In fact, we didn’t have to (anesthetize) too many children, because he was so good at making them feel comfortable.” A further testament to Norbert’s work ethic was an award given in his honor. Traci Lumpkin, RT (R)(T), CMD, a Dosimetrist who still works in this department, received the first Norbert Black Award for “exemplary traits” in 1994.

Norbert Black died in 1997.

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Benjamin Blackburn, Medical Physicist 1969-1984

“Ben Blackburn was decades ahead of the field, but he was humble and didn’t seek acclaim for his accomplishments,” noted Sharon Spencer, M.D. Others echoed this sentiment. An excerpt written by Dr. Gary Barnes, in the forward of a textbook written using Blackburn’s teaching notes, Barnes writes:“Ben asked little and gave a lot to his profession, colleagues, friends and family; He commanded the respect of his peers…and introduced a number of innovations in the field. Although Ben was hardworking, a pleasure to be around and work with, and smarter than most of us, he did have one fault. He did not publish many of his innovations or scientific accomplishments. It was sufficient that he did it, and he felt little need to publicize the fact.”

Dr. Spencer explained that “as a department, we didn’t market ourselves very well in those early years – we were only interested in taking care of patients.” And so it was with Ben Blackburn. Aside from his groundbreaking work and teaching prowess, he also took the time to mentor others. As Dr. Brezovich recalls, “he was uncompromising about quality and he taught me the absolute importance of patient care.”

Ben Blackburn succumbed to cancer in 1986.

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James A. Bonner, M.D., Professor, 3rd Chair of Radiation Oncology, 1998-Present

Dr. LoBuglio, leader of the Comprehensive Cancer Center, recruited Dr. Bonner to UAB in 1998. “It seemed like a natural fit to me,” stated Dr. Bonner. “I wasn’t really looking for a Chair’s job and in fact, I had turned down a couple of offers. But Dr. Leonard Gundersen, at Mayo Clinic, was one of my mentors and he really encouraged me to seek a Chair position. And Dr. LoBuglio and Dr. Durant had put together a Comprehensive Cancer Center where I felt that a Radiation Oncology center could dedicate itself to translational research and really thrive. Both the Cetuximab and Chlorotoxin are examples of projects where we’ve done good translational research that carried from the bench to the bedside. The Comprehensive Cancer Center here furthers that mission.”

Yet it hasn’t just been about research. All three of the department’s missions have experienced growth under Dr. Bonner’s direction. Regarding education, “in the time since I’ve arrived,” he noted, “the program doubled its clinical base and this in turn has allowed us to double the size of our residency program. And we’ve really been able to attract good candidates for this program.”

The clinical programs have also thrived. “We’ve added the Acton Road facility (The Kirklin Clinic at Acton Road), and this has furthered our clinical mission.” In 2006, Dr. Bonner released standard-of-care altering research for head & neck cancers. This research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, was cited by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) as one of the top six cancer discoveries in 2006.

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Donn J. Brascho, M.D., 1969-1987

“I was in Korea,” stated Dr. Brascho, when asked about his initial recruitment to UAB. Dr. Rip Tidwell, a radiologist, told me that Birmingham really needed a therapeutic radiologist, so I made an appointment to visit with Dr. Roth. He offered me the job, but I informed him that I still had another year left on my military commitment. But, he said he’d wait and hired me anyway.” His career at UAB was filled with numerous achievements, including being awarded an honorary membership in the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM), in 2007. He joined a select group of 15 honorary members to AAPM, including Nobel Laureates, inventors, and pioneers in the field of radiotherapy. Dr. Brezovich, who initiated the nomination, notes that “Dr. Brascho put the science into the field.”

Dr. Brascho is credited as a pioneer, perhaps the foremost pioneer, in the use of ultrasound-based image guidance (IGRT). “Using a diagnostic ultrasound to localize tumors, we could get 3D images.” While his innovations were numerous, his work often centered upon treatment planning. “I was always very interested in treatment planning,” noted Dr. Brascho. “We were the first to interface the ultrasound unit directly to the computer. We also then constructed our own light pen, which could draw right on the screen.” Besides developing clinical new applications, Dr. Brascho was also very involved in education, having written many book chapters and several dozen papers. He still practices as a Radiation Oncologist in a private setting today.

Ivan A. Brezovich, Ph.D., Professor, Director of Medical Physics, 1975-Present

A native of Austria, Dr. Brezovich came to the United States and to UAB in 1968. He was UAB’s first graduate student in physics, and he became UAB’s first Ph.D. graduate in physics. “I actually got into medical applications of physics in 1975, as a post-doc working with Dr. Gary Barnes. I was inspired by medical physics because it allowed for the application of physics where you can see the outcomes.”

“I’ve grown up in the field and been involved with it since its infancy. The most significant gains that I’ve seen are in sparing normal tissues,” Dr. Brezovich said. “We can now do what we had conceptually wanted to do in the past. And the combinations of drug therapy and radiation have continually made treatments more effective.”

Dr. Brezovich notes his work with hyperthermia in the late 1970’s as some of the most rewarding times in his lengthy and stellar career.

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Jill Caranto R.T., C.M.D. Certified Medical Dosimetrist 1970 to present

The most senior active member, Jill Caranto, came to UAB and to the Department as a Dosimetrist in 1970. Jill was the first graduate of a pilot Dosimetry program at Duke University. Dr. Pat Cavanaugh had written to her and offered her an opportunity to move from a hospital-based program in Bluefield, West Virginia to Duke, where she would work and study her way to a Dosimetry degree under the expert tutelage of Dosimetry pioneer Gunella Bentel. Jill describes the early days in the Jefferson Tower Basement as being quite different than today:

“We didn’t have a simulator, just an x-ray unit and a cobalt machine. We did have a cesium machine and a superficial for shallow tumors. When you wanted a port, you used wires taped to the patient to form image outlines. Contours also used wires, so only single-plane calculations were available. And isodose curves were rare, but when they were called for, they were hand-calculated. The doctors did their own calculations, and while some used a slide rule, myself and many others did our calculations with a pencil and paper.”

Jill recollects that “we had a staff of about fifteen, and about four of them were Radiographers. All of the rooms were small and the operating units were separated from one another. Dosimetry was a five minute walk away from the treatment machine. And some days we would treat as many as seventy patients, so we were very busy, but they were usually simple, single-field treatments.”

She cites former physicist Ben Blackburn and current physician Dr. John Fiveash, MD as mentors throughout her career. “Both were instrumental in my professional growth. Ben Blackburn helped me to hone my Dosimetry skills, as they were pretty basic when I first came here. Dr. Fiveash always challenges me to be better. Even now, I always learn something whenever I plan one his patients.” As a cancer survivor and a former patient in this department, Caranto has become more of a cancer advocate than ever. She continues to work with organizations, giving talks, fundraising, and improving awareness. “Above all, I like to be needed.”

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Robert Kim, M.D., Professor, 1972-Present

After coming to UAB for a Pathology residency, Dr. Kim expressed his interest in Radiation Oncology to Dr. Roth. He ended up in the residency program, which he completed in 1975. “Our faculty was Dr. Roth, Dr. Brascho, and Dr. Salter at that time, with Dr. David Levy, Dr. Steve Perry, and I as residents. I consider all three of those faculty members as my mentors.” Dr. Kim, a native of South Korea, is well known to residents as an exceptional teacher. He has witnessed tremendous change in radiation oncology and general cancer detection and treatment over the years. “The biggest change that I’ve seen is in early detection,” Dr. Kim said. “Years ago, once cancer was detected, it was already much more severe. Now, we can detect cancers much earlier, which improves our chances of successful treatment.”

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Ruby Meredith, M.D., Ph.D., Professor, 1987-Present

In earlier years, when many faculty physicians were recruited to the department for their clinical prowess, Dr. Meredith was sought in an effort to further the research program. According to Dr. Meredith, “Dr. Salter recruited me with the idea that my clinical load would be low enough to allow me to focus on developing research. Other centers wanted me to develop research also, but in addition to a full clinical load.”

“Dr. Meredith has been a key to developing our research program,” stated Dr. Spencer. “With her work on radio immunotherapy, she is a pioneer in the field. Dr. Meredith added, “I feel very good about our work with investigational therapies. One patient – after being written off as untreatable – is still alive fifteen years later.” “My research targets radio-nuclide therapy, specifically intra-perineal treatment of ovarian cancer. A number of patients that have failed standard therapies have survived beyond five years.” Dr. Meredith participated in the initial clinical trials that led to the FDA approval of Zevalin and Bexxar. She cites Dr. LoBuglio as one of her mentors, especially as it pertains to her growth as a researcher. “He has a special ability to predict where the field is going and a great ability to discern the value of potential scientific projects.”

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Prem Pareek, Ph.D., Professor, Director of Physics, The Kirklin Clinic at Acton Road, 1985-Present

Dr. Pareek came to UAB in 1985, to join Dr. Brezovich as part of the Physics faculty team. “There were no computers for treatment planning at that time. But then we had purchased our first ADAC computer, which used an 8” floppy disk. It worked well for some time, though it took the Dosimetrists awhile to get used to it.”

While he has been a staple in the clinical practice for more than two decades, Dr. Pareek is most revered for his contributions to teaching physics to our residents. “When I started teaching, I wanted to make sure that Physics “stuck” with each resident. It seemed like they would learn it one year, then forget what they’ve learned the next. So I wanted them to take physics training each and every year or their training – then they’d remember it.” Through the support of the Chairman and the Residency Program leader, his wish was granted. The results: “We had one resident with the highest score in the nation (Dr. Tres Childs, 2000).”

“My first love is teaching. At first, a teacher teaches what he wants to teach, but over time, a good teacher begins to understand both what the student really wants and needs to learn, what they are grasping and what they are not. You learn not to take learning for granted,” Dr. Pareek said. “The main thing is that we’ve always had good cooperation and teamwork for education in this department, and that has led to an excellent environment for teaching. And I believe that our department is truly one of the best programs in the country at preparing residents.”

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Robert E. Roth, M.D., Professor, 1st Chair of Radiation Oncology, 1969-1985

A Columbia University graduate, Dr. Roth was working with radiology and tumor treatment in Nashville in 1954, when the Dean of the UAB Medical College, Dr. Robert C. Berson, offered him a position at UAB. Dr. Roth noted, “UAB was just a handful of buildings at that time – not really even UAB yet – and the areas surrounding the campus were very poor. Driving in to the interview, I wondered why I would come here. But, I thought about it and I realized that I could make a difference in the community here. And I saw it as a challenge, so I accepted the position.”

Amongst a number of proud moments, he cited winning a grant that ultimately improved the quality of radiation oncology services in the state, and accordingly, the quality of life for many cancer patients and their families. “The grant led to weekly collaborations with oncologists and other caregivers throughout Alabama. We did a lot of treatment planning for other facilities around the state, and we traveled to them using an old Winnebago.”

Dr. Roth worked at UAB from 1955-1985. He currently resides in Birmingham.

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Merle M. Salter, M.D., Professor, 2nd Chair of Radiation Oncology, 1986-1995

When Dr. Salter started her radiology residency at UAB, she found that she liked the therapeutic training more than the diagnostic, so when Dr. Roth approached her about becoming the first resident in the new Radiation Oncology program, she accepted. Her passion was foremost for direct patient care. “Dr. Roth had a clinical focus, so I was trained to pursue clinical endeavors. In fact, in the early days Dr. Roth and I used to give chemotherapy to patients since there were no full-time medical oncologists. That was right before Dr. John Durant came to UAB and established Medical Oncology.”

When Dr. Roth retired in 1985, Dr. Salter was a likely candidate for the Chair position. However, she initially wasn’t interested in the job. But Dr. Durant, who was at Fox Chase by that time, convinced her to try it for two years. Dr. LoBuglio, former head of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB until his retirement, was involved in the hiring of both the second and third Chairs of the department. He recalled that Dr. Salter “wanted to take care of patients. She initially was apprehensive about the administrative aspects of the position, plus a new push to develop a research program. She ended up doing a fine job.”

Dr. Salter offered: “We couldn’t survive as a center if we didn’t grow, so we began our growth in the clinical research area. We began participating in national studies and also doing collaborative research with Medical Oncology on such things as monoclonal antibodies. Then we hired a radiobiologist (Al Lawson, Ph.D.) and a researcher (Dr. Meredith) to really get the program going.”

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Sharon Spencer, M.D., Professor, 1983-Present

If you want to learn a lot about the accolades of Dr. Spencer, you should speak with anyone except Dr. Spencer. Her peers will speak volumes, but she is not one to dwell upon her past successes. She performed her residency here at UAB, and remained in the department. She has always been a patient volume leading physician. Despite her clinical focus, she works in an academic center because she most enjoys the “collaboration and camaraderie with other specialists.” She states that “the desire to collaborate was “the nature of Dr. Salter, and it was reflected in our practice and in the creation of various multi-disciplinary clinics. Clinical faculty used to treat all kinds of cancers – now everyone is becoming more specialized and even sub-specialized within their subspecialty. You have to work together.”

Known for her exceptional work ethic, Dr. Spencer is said to remind veteran staff of Dr. Salter. “Their styles are very similar,” notes Jill Caranto, emphasizing the word “very”.

The information in this article was compiled through personal interviews and internal research conducted by its author. Every attempt has been made to confirm the accuracy of dates and details as provided by the interview subjects. The article was written by Mark Bassett, Ph.D., MBA, former Operations Director, The UAB Department of Radiation Oncology, June 2008 and updated by Andy Currie, November 2013.

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