Bernard Fisher advanced breast cancer research while serving in School of Medicine

Bernard Fisher in library

Bernard Fisher, pioneering breast cancer researcher and a distinguished service professor in the School of Medicine, died on Oct. 16, 2019, at 101.

Fisher advanced the understanding of the clinical biology of breast cancer and pioneered the design and implementation of large-scale multi-institutional randomized clinical trials.

He earned his bachelor’s and medical degrees at Pitt in 1940 and 1943, respectively, joining Pitt shortly after as the medical school’s first full-time Department of Surgery faculty member. In 1953, he established the University’s first Laboratory of Surgical Research and contributed to the development of transplantation and vascular surgery. He performed the first kidney transplant in Pittsburgh in 1964 and directed surgical research here in liver regeneration, transplant rejection and hypothermia.

In 1958, Fisher began to focus on cancer research, becoming a founding member (1958) and later chairman (1967-1994) of the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project (NSABP). His subsequent research led him to challenge breast cancer treatment dogma that had prevailed since the 19th century — that patients were best treated with radical mastectomy. His studies in the 1970s proved that less extensive procedures — lumpectomies — had similar survival rates.

Fisher’s research also showed the value of adding systemic, adjuvant chemotherapy or hormonal therapy and of employing tamoxifen for breast cancer prevention. “No clinical therapy should be determined by emotion or conviction — the determinant must be the scientific method,” Fisher said in a 2009 video interview shown at that year’s annual Pitt lecture named in his honor.

“Bernard Fisher was one of the great medical pioneers of our time,” said Chancellor Patrick Gallagher in remarks released by Pitt. “His research at the University of Pittsburgh fundamentally changed how clinicians treat breast cancer — and saved an untold number of lives along the way.”

Arthur S. Levine, senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and dean of the School of Medicine, called Fisher “a titan. His research improved and extended the lives of untold numbers of women who suffered the scourge of breast cancer. His work overturned the dominant paradigm of cancer progression and, to the benefit of all, demonstrated the systemic nature of metastasis. This work offered us great insight into the biology of all cancer.”

Fisher received numerous honors throughout his career, including the Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research, the American Association for Cancer Research Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research and an honorary doctorate from Pitt. A member of the National Academy of Medicine, he was appointed to the President’s Cancer Panel and the National Cancer Advisory Board and was the first surgeon to serve as president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

He is survived by his three children — Beth Fisher (Dr. Harvey Himel), Joseph Fisher (Debra) and Louisa Rudolph (James) — five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.