James Ewing's biography has been recounted in several publications [1
], but some of the highlights are worth retelling. He was one of five children of a judge, born in Pittsburgh on Christmas Day in 1866. At age 14, he suffered from osteomyelitis of his femur after he was injured while ice skating [2
] and was bedridden for months. He occupied much of this time being tutored and entering contests, and in a turn of events that may have influenced his career choice, he won a microscope in one contest for his word play on “Constantinople.” Shortly after completing his medical training, he married Catherine Halsted at the turn of the century, and within two years became a father. Unfortunately, his wife and unborn second son died during childbirth in 1903, and he remained a widower the rest of his life. His resulting personal reclusivity may have contributed to his professional productivity, as his seminal cancer textbook took 10 years to write “including holidays, nights and weekends” [3
By all accounts, James Ewing was an academic giant. He assembled an impressive curriculum vitae, first studying as an undergraduate at Amherst College and then completing his medical training at the prestigious New York College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1891. After a brief stint at the Western Pennsylvania hospital, he did his internship at the Roosevelt Hospital and Sloane Maternity, where he cultivated his interest in anatomic pathology. He volunteered for a year as a contract surgeon to the US army, then in 1899 he managed to land the very first professorship of pathology at the recently minted Medical College of Cornell University in New York City. He published his first textbook only two years later, Clinical Pathology of Blood: A Treatise on the General Principles and Special Applications of Hematology. He remained in his position at Cornell for 33 years.
As a young professor, Ewing began to study cancer in animals, such as canine lymphosarcoma, and he quickly became a noted spokesman for cancer research and an avid fundraiser. He established the P. Huntington Fund for Cancer Research in 1902, cofounded the American Association for Cancer Research in 1907, and founded the American Society for the Control of Cancer, now the American Cancer Society, in 1913. In addition, he founded the Journal for Cancer Research and teamed with philanthropist James Douglas to create Memorial Hospital of New York, where he later became its first director of research. In his leadership position, Ewing guided the institution's evolution into the nation's first cancer center, now known as Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
Ewing's most influential academic contribution was his 1919 cancer textbook, Neoplastic Disease: A Textbook on Tumors
, of which he was the sole author. This comprehensive treatise on cancer spanned early cancer history to modern biologic theory to detailed pathologic descriptions and classifications of all known cancer types. With this publication, Ewing essentially founded oncology as a medical subspecialty. In 1931, Ewing's broad contribution to the cancer field was recognized by Time
magazine, which featured a sketch of his visage on the cover, calling him “Cancer Man Ewing” [3
Despite his intensive work schedule, a limp from hip ankylosis, and a nagging facial neuralgia, Ewing managed to maintain his interest in sports, playing tennis on weekends and taking in professional baseball games. Although his adulthood was spent in New York, he remained an ardent fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates and is said to have once skipped one of his own lectures when they were in town to play the New York Giants (then a baseball team). According to accounts, three of his students were also truant and spotted him at the game [3
]. Skipping his classes was probably a rare event, as he was said to be “beloved by students and colleagues; a physician of the highest ideals” [3
Ironically, the Cancer Man died of bladder cancer in 1943 at the age of 76, and at autopsy was also found to have low-grade prostate cancer [1
]. His life's impact was evident at his funeral, which was attended by over a thousand people. Ewing shed a bright light on cancer, bringing it into the public eye long before it became a national priority. His vision of establishing six $10 million cancer centers throughout the United States was a blueprint for the current network of National Cancer Institute designated cancer centers, which now number 65 and approach $300 million in core funding. As an Amherst alumnus, James Ewing certainly fulfilled the College's motto, Terras Irradient
, meaning “Let them give light to the world.”