The cancer fighters: John Glick and a legacy of a half century in oncology

The National Cancer Act passed 50 years ago, lighting a spark that would revolutionize cancer care. In time, Penn and its Abramson Cancer Center (ACC) came to fuel many of the transformational changes in oncology across the landscape. In advance of retirement, John H. Glick, the Center’s longest-serving director, reflects on his lasting legacy in the extraordinary ensemble of cancer fighters he inspired through his career on the front line of that transformation.

John Glick standing with arms crossed in a white lab coat.
John Glick, the Madlyn and Leonard Abramson Professor of Clinical Oncology and professor of medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine. (Image: Penn Medicine News)

Half a century ago, the word “cancer” was hardly spoken. For patients, the options were few, painful, and rarely offered hope. Today, the notion of cancer has radically transformed. From one taboo disease, it is understood to be hundreds of unique molecular diseases with hundreds of precision treatments and many cures, some of them powered by harnessing the body’s own immune system. Care for cancer patients is not only about the disease, but about the person, encompassing their psychosocial needs and other ailments. Research connects from the bench to the bedside and back. It spans the full spectrum from prevention to survivorship care.

As this radical revision of the cancer world has unfolded at Penn and its Abramson Cancer Center, so it has across the world—and in many notable cases, Penn has driven the revolution.

No one knows this better than Glick, the Madlyn and Leonard Abramson Professor of Clinical Oncology and professor of medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine. The director of Penn’s National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer center from 1985 to 2006, Glick first came to Penn as a young clinical researcher fresh from fellowship training at Stanford and the NCI. Over his distinguished career, he has treated thousands of patients, pioneered medical treatments for breast and other cancers, and forged relationships with philanthropic supporters, including the Abramsons. He has also mentored and recruited generations of leaders. Immunotherapy pioneer and pancreatic cancer researcher Robert H. Vonderheide, currently the director of the ACC, was among these recruits in 2001.

“When I first came here in ’74, I was the only medical oncologist at Penn. I saw every cancer patient in the hospital for four years. It took over a decade to begin to have the most important component of cancer care, which is great physicians,” says Glick. “The cancer center for years was really small: the Hematology/Oncology division and the department of Pathology. In 1985, when I became director, it was still a very small cancer center—a hundred members, very few departments—not existing outside of the School of Medicine. We started with what has become the foundation: recruitment of outstanding physicians and outstanding scientists.”

Read more at Penn Medicine News.