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September 11, 1997



"I'm very pleased and satisfied that this litigation has been disposed of and that I am now given the opportunity to continue my life's work under more favorable circumstances," Bernard Fisher, 78, said in an interview with University Times Assistant Editor Bruce Steele.

The interview took place one week after Fisher dropped his lawsuit against Pitt and other defendants in return for an official apology from the University and $2.75 million. Fisher had filed suit in federal court three years ago after Pitt acceded to the National Cancer Institute's demand that he be removed as chairperson and principal investigator of the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project. NSABP is the nation's oldest and largest breast cancer research group.

"I want to point out that I'm particularly pleased with the letter of apology which the University put out," Fisher added. "I think that that was fine, and I'm grateful for it."

University Times: Do you think the outcome of your case will affect other scientists?

Fisher: From the very beginning, I felt that what happened to me was something that could have an impact on other scientists and academicians in general, and that was one of the things that compelled me to do what I did in terms of this lawsuit. I hoped that by pursuing this [lawsuit], I might prevent similar things from happening to other scientists, at least to some extent.

Do you think this settlement will restore your reputation?

I'll be honest with you — I think that my family and I will always live with this. It [a reputation] is not something like a light switch that you can turn on and off. I think this will always haunt us, but we will try to put it aside.

Originally, in your lawsuit, you were seeking reinstatement as NSABP chairman. Are you still pursuing that?

I have no desire to become chairman again. That is in capable hands, with Dr. [Norman] Wolmark [of Allegheny General Hospital]. I'm quite content to continue as scientific director — to do science and leave the administration to other people.

Part of my original intention in seeking reinstatement was to prevent the NSABP from being divided. But of course the way the thing has played out, the group got divided into two parts, with the biostatistical activities remaining at Pitt and the other part, the operations center, at Allegheny General.

The fact that NSABP is headquartered now at Allegheny General — does that hinder your own work?

I don't want to get into that. I just don't want to get into that part.

Let me read you a quote from an April 2, 1992, story in the University Times, which was published right after you were named one of the Chancellor's Distinguished Researchers for that year. You said at that time, "Even at this stage in my life I have more things to do, more papers to write, more experiments to do, more studies I'd like to see carried out than time is available." That is precisely the quote that I would give you today. That was published in 1992? Since that time, I have published some of the most important research of my life, including the article in The New England Journal of Medicine on the effectiveness of lumpectomy and radiation therapy for treatment of non-invasive breast cancer.

Between 1994 and 1996, I published very little because of all that was going on [with investigations of NSABP research, etc.]. But within the last year I've written a very important article having to do with the effectiveness of chemotherapy for node-negative patients who were previously thought not to need chemotherapy. And right at the moment, I'm preparing a very important paper on the use of pre-operative chemotherapy — that is, replacing the initial treatment of breast cancer by surgery with the use of chemotherapy. That has the potential for completely revolutionizing the way breast cancer will be treated in the future.

So I guess one of the lessons in this — and I feel very strongly about this — is that chronologic age should not be looked upon as a bad mark, especially for people who still are able to use their heads. Because as long as you're able to do work, you should be doing it.

Concerning the settlement of your lawsuit, can you confirm…

I can't discuss the settlement. It's impossible for me to discuss it. There are confidentiality requirements.

How do you plan to use the settlement money?

Do you plan to plow it back into your research?

I have not given any thought to that whatsoever. I really have not.

You know, something you haven't asked me about is the human story behind all of this. I'd just like to point out that my association with the University of Pittsburgh goes back to when I was in grade school during the 1920s, when I contributed 10 cents to the building of the Cathedral of Learning. I started college as an undergraduate here in 1936, medical school in 1939, and I've been attached ever since, one way or another, to the University. So this whole affair to me has been traumatic in the sense that I always felt myself to be part of the University of Pittsburgh. It certainly goes much deeper than an ordinary employer-employee relationship. The saddest part of this whole thing during the last several years was feeling abandoned by the University. To me, that's the real story.

Are you feeling any less abandoned today?

Laughing. I don't know. This [settlement] just happened. But the point I want to make is that this has been a very emotional thing for me.

The fact that you didn't pursue your lawsuit to the bitter end — was that motivated by your emotional feelings about the University?

That decision was motivated by a lot of things. Mostly, it was motivated by my desire to get back to work and do the things that I am most equipped to do. Feelings about the University? As I've said, when one talks about a university, one doesn't just talk about buildings and streets. One talks about people. There are many people in this University who I feel very good about. There are a few I don't feel so good about. But I still feel a certain appreciation for my life here at the University, and I'm glad that this whole thing [NSABP controversy] is over.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 30 Issue 2

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