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Dr. Bernard Fisher (1918–2019), pioneer of breast cancer treatment

by Linnea Crowther

Dr. Bernard Fisher was a surgeon whose research revolutionized the treatment of breast cancer.

  • Died: October 16, 2019 (Who else died on October 16?)
  • Details of death: Died in Pittsburgh at the age of 101.
  • We invite you to share condolences for Dr. Bernard Fisher in our Guest Book.

He helped people live longer, better lives: Before Fisher’s clinical trials of the 1950s through the 1970s, even early stage breast cancer was typically treated with a radical mastectomy, which removed the breast, lymph nodes, chest muscle, and often ribs. Fisher proved that a less-invasive lumpectomy, followed by radiation, was at least as effective as radical mastectomy, often more so. Patients tended to live longer lives with his treatments, and their bodies weren’t debilitated by radical surgery. His method eventually became the standard for treatment, and his research did more than fundamentally change breast cancer treatment. The concept of the clinical trial was a new one when he began his research, and his successful use of the research method helped legitimize it in the medical community. Fisher later proved that the drug tamoxifen could prevent breast cancer in at-risk women.

Upending the medical community: When Fisher first began recommending less invasive surgery to treat breast cancer, his fellow oncologists didn’t embrace his findings. In fact, they thought his research was both ridiculous and wrong. The treatment Fisher suggested seemed woefully inadequate, and his beliefs about the way cancer spread were very different from the standard at the time. Many surgeons wouldn’t let their patients enroll in Fisher’s clinical trials. But as his research showed positive results, it eventually found its way to the mainstream, and by 1979, his method was the go-to. Even as Fisher met resistance from the medical community, he found champions in the women’s rights movement; his focus on women’s health was unusual and appreciated.

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Controversy: Fisher’s research was subject to controversy in the 1990s, when it was discovered that one of the surgeons participating in his clinical trial had submitted falsified data. Fisher was accused of dragging his feet, not making the correction to scientific journals before his findings were published. A congressional hearing ultimately cleared Fisher of any wrongdoing.

Notable quote: “I discovered how little information there was related to the biology of breast cancer and what a lack of interest there was in understanding the disease.”

What people said about him: “Historical examples of successfully shifting medical paradigms once widely embraced as consensus? Since WW2, Bernard Fisher may have been the only one who ever pulled it off. The patron saint of what evidence-based medicine should be.” —author Gary Taubes

“He risked everything to change medical dogma when the establishment said he was wrong. In the end data wins. Thank you Dr. Fisher.” —Faustman Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital

“He was the most hated surgeon in the history of mankind; his colleagues got to the Cancer Institute and vilified him. I sometimes wonder how he survived. What struck me was, he was a tough guy.” —Dr. Vincent T. DeVita Jr., former director of the National Cancer Institute

Full obituary: The New York Times

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