1970’s: Innovative Spirit

The 1970’s was a decade of rapid growth and change, for both the nation and for the newly-formed department.

Many clinical advances were achieved, and the groundwork was put in place for the development of our educational mission. Some cutting edge technologies and methodologies were either created or furthered here, and this period brought the realization that it is was necessary for radiation oncology to expand as a field in the state of Alabama. UAB was going be the organization that led the charge.

A new facility was built and opened in 1976 in recognition of the regional void in essential cancer treatment facilities. Dr. Roth and Jill Caranto, RT (R)(T), CMD agreed that the current home to Radiation Oncology, the Lurleen B. Wallace Tumor Institute, was born out of Lurleen Wallace’s bout with cancer. “No one in the state had the facilities to provide her with necessary treatments at that time, and that kind of awakened legislators to the need to get new facilities in place in Alabama.”

The city of Birmingham’s steel industry was waning and UAB was the new wunderkind. Funding was quickly available for the project. “We designed it (The Lurleen B. Wallace Tumor Institute) originally to house Radiation Oncology in the Basement and on the First Floor, with Medical Oncology up above,” recalls Dr. Brascho, a former department physician. Medical Oncology eventually outgrew the space, leading to the department’s move to The Kirklin Clinic when it opened in 1993. UAB also began providing traveling dosimetric services for brachytherapy patients at other facilities in Alabama. “We had an old Winnebago that we used to carry the tools of the trade around to other facilities. In fact, we had people traveling all over the state on a regular basis, helping other facilities help their cancer patients,” exclaimed Dr. Brascho.

Many of the advancements in radiation oncology during the 1970’s were related to treatment planning. Dr. Brascho was a pioneer at using ultrasound for improving the accuracy of treatment planning. His revolutionary methods proved to be much more precise than utilizing wires for targeting. According to Ivan Brezovich, Ph.D., Dr. Brascho “was so respected for his contributions, he became one of the few MD’s to be inducted into the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) as an honorary member.”

Other advancements were made by other contributors. Said Dr. Brascho, “Ben Blackburn developed a 3-field, perineal technique using special compensators with the Cobalt unit. This technique allowed for more tolerable doses to be delivered to patients.” Some of Ben Blackburn’s ideas in the field were so ahead of their time that Dr. Spencer, detailing some early advances in our department, noted: “Ben Blackburn was a masters-trained physicist that was thirty years ahead of the field in some aspects.”

Some very notable work on hyperthermia came from Dr. Brezovich, Ruby Meredith, M.D., Ph.D., John Durant, M.D. and Robert Kim, M.D. The goal was more effective cancer treatment, built upon the idea that combining heat with radiation provides a synergism that improves the rate of killing cancer cells. Most of the patients treated with these techniques were maxed out on conventional treatments. The UAB team measured success with this new treatment by the tumor’s shrinkage. They had many therapeutic techniques for heating a tumor, including externally applied electrodes, and implanted electrodes.