Biography of a Cancer
By Ken Zurski
On April 21 1960, a Thursday, CBS television aired a taped documentary titled “Biography of a Cancer” that for its day, was as timely as it was informative. That’s because in the 1950’s doctors had just begun experimenting with a combination chemotherapy and radiation treatment and widespread skepticism followed. There were just as many questions about its clinical usefulness as there were answers. So the network’s objective was to present a cancer patient and show “truthfully and graphically” the various stages of the disease.
They found the perfect subject in Thomas A. Dooley.
Dooley not only had been diagnosed with cancer, but he was also a doctor, and a well known one at that. A lieutenant and rising star in the Navy, Dooley scrapped plans to be an orthopedic surgeon, left the military, and devoted his life to serve those in less fortunate areas of the world. He was profiled by some as a globetrotting playboy, both good looking and successful, who became an “idealistic, crusading servant of the poor and depressed.” Dooley didn’t care how he was perceived. His mission was clear. But due to this mix of admonition and admiration, the story got notice and Dooley wrote three best-selling books about his humanitarian crusade.
Then he got cancer.
When Dooley agreed to be filmed by CBS he was just about to have surgery on the malignant tumor found near his shoulder.
In August of 1959, the cameras rolled.
Nearly a year later on that April evening when the show aired, Tom Dooley wasn’t around to see it. He was in Southeast Asia treating the sick. In fact, Dooley kept a constant travel schedule even after the diagnosis and surgery. His will and determination was an inspiration to the staff of MEDICO, the world-wide health organization Dooley founded. Many of his patients called him “Dr. America,” but his team knew him simply as “Dr. Tom.”
“Walt Whitman, I think, said that it’s not important what you do with the years of your life, but how you use each hour, “ Dooley told the television viewers in the CBS special. “That’s how I want to live.”
Eventually, he was just too weak to continue. “I’m not going to quit. I will continue to guide and lead my hospitals until my back, my brain, and my bones collapse,” he said after being admitted for treatment for the last time.
On January 18, 1961, just a month after returning from a mission to Bangkok and one day after his 34th birthday, Tom Dooley died. For all his frantic and tireless efforts, both in front and behind the camera, a friend exclaimed, the end was “a quiet, peaceful slipping away.”
At the time of his death, the dedication to his work, and not the brief stint on television, was the focus of numerous articles and memorials.