As early as 1935, Harold P. Rusch, a young physician scientist in the Medical School, began discussions with University of Wisconsin–Madison leaders regarding the importance of establishing a cancer research center on the UW campus. The university decided in 1938 to expand the existing small cancer hospital into a research facility with the construction of a four-story building using a recent bequest by Michael W. McArdle, of which two floors were devoted to Dr. Rusch’s research in carcinogenesis. When the building opened in 1940 as the McArdle Memorial Laboratory for Cancer Research, it was the first cancer research center founded by a university in the United States. Dr. Harold Rusch was appointed as its first Director, leading Drs. Fred Mohs and Van R. Potter as the initial research faculty.
A milestone in the relationship of the McArdle Laboratory and the Cancer Hospital (which was initially a Division of the Department of Surgery) was the discovery of 5-fluorouracil by Dr. Charles Heidelberger of the McArdle Laboratory. This agent was the first nationally designed anti-cancer drug. Heidelberger’s work with Dr. Curreri, the Director of the Cancer Hospital, and Dr. Fred Ansfield, one of the founders of American Society of Clinical Onocology (ASCO), demonstrated its clinical efficacy in cancer treatment and revolutionized the field of chemotherapy.
The McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research received its first multi-investigator National Cancer Institute (NCI) block grant in 1946. NCI support continued until McArdle consolidated with the other UW cancer center in 2000. In 1947, the university and Medical School granted departmental status to the McArdle faculty, creating the Department of Oncology. The university also awarded the right to grant advanced M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Experimental Oncology in 1955.
On several occasions, Dr. Rusch sought and obtained construction funds from the NCI to expand the basic and clinical research capacity of McArdle. Funds received in 1964 led to the construction of the 11 story McArdle Laboratory tower occupied by the Department of Oncology to this day. In 1974, construction funds provided the resources to build the K4 tower of the Clinical Science Center, which today serves as the administrative core of the UWCCC and contains oncology and radiation therapy clinics, as well as several basic research labs.
Among the most notable accomplishments during the middle years of the 20th century were the development by Van Potter in 1951 of the biochemical basis for the clinical use of multi-drug chemotherapy; the synthesis by C. Heidelberger in 1951 of 5-fluorouracil and its application in the clinic; the demonstration in the 1960s by Drs. James and Elizabeth Miller that the metabolic activation of most chemical carcinogens to reactive electrophiles was required for their carcinogenic activity; and the discovery by Howard Temin in 1970 of reverse transcriptase and its role in the life cycle of retroviruses, for which he was awarded the Noble Prize in 1975 with Drs. David Baltimore and Renato Delbecco.
In June 1970, Dr. Rusch was appointed to the National Panel of Consultants on the Conquest of Cancer, better known as the Senator Yarborough Committee tasked with finding solutions to the growing cancer epidemic in the United States. The report published by this distinguished committee in April of 1971 formed the basis of the National Cancer Act of 1971. The bill passed both the House and Senate, and President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act on December 23, 1971 designating a “War on Cancer”. Among a number of new initiatives to support a broader effort to conquer cancer was the authorization to establish fifteen new comprehensive cancer centers.
Dr. Rusch took the President’s challenge and submitted a proposal to create a new comprehensive cancer center at the University of Wisconsin. The new Clinical Cancer Center was created in 1972 from this new process as one of the original NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers.
In March 1972, Dr. Rusch turned the reins of the McArdle Laboratory over to Dr. Henry Pitot and accepted the directorship of the new Clinical Cancer Center.