Melvin Griem, radiation therapy pioneer, 1925–2011

A leader in the early days of radiation therapy for cancer, Melvin L. Griem, professor emeritus in radiation and cellular oncology, died of pneumonia Feb. 7 at The Grove at Lincoln Park in Chicago. He was 85.

Griem was a pioneer who helped to establish radiation oncology—the use of radiation to treat cancer—as a separate field from radiology, which focused on diagnostic imaging. He was among the first to work with heavy particle emitters instead of X–rays, and he helped create the neutron therapy unit at the University of Chicago in the 1970s. He performed important studies on the long–term consequences of radiation exposure in a therapeutic setting.

He was a member of a small group of Chicago radiologists who successfully lobbied for a separate journal, specialty board and professional society for the emerging field, which culminated in formation of the American Society of Therapeutic Radiation Oncology.

Griem combined “a background in physics, a medical education, a concern for patients with cancer, broad vision, unbridled enthusiasm and energy,” said Harold Sutton, professor emeritus of radiation oncology, who came to UChicago as a surgical resident but was converted to radiation oncology by Griem’s enthusiasm for the field. “He was a special man who met the multiple opportunities and challenges of a rapidly evolving specialty with great creative energy and vision.”

“He was a visionary, ahead of his time,” said Ralph Weichselbaum, the D.K. Ludwig Professor and chair of radiation and cellular oncology.

“He was charming and truly imaginative, a clinician who was genuinely interested in research,” said Leslie DeGroot, professor emeritus of medicine. “He had different ideas from most people, but some of his ideas were extremely good.”

“Mel Griem was a hard–working, reliable, honest person who could be depended upon and always ready to be helpful,” recalled Alvin Tarlov, former professor and chairman of medicine. “I respected him greatly as a clinician.”

An innovator in radiation therapy

In the late 1950s, Griem and colleagues studied how various drugs or hormones could enhance the effects of radiation therapy for certain types of cancer. In the 1960s, he performed clinical studies of interstitial radiation therapy, implanting radioactive chromium “seeds” into cancerous tissue to deliver high doses to tumor cells but reduce the damage to nearby health cells. This approach produced “favorable” responses and a few lasting successes. A similar technique is now widely used for treatment of prostate cancer.

In 1975, he helped launch a neutron–therapy unit for cancer treatment at UChicago, one of the first four such facilities in the United States and, at the time, the only one based at a hospital. He also was known internationally for innovative treatments such as total skin irradiation for mycosis fungoides, a form of lymphoma that produces tumors of the skin.

Griem also studied the long–term consequences of therapeutic radiation. In a 1994 study—a marvel of after–the–fact detective work—he showed that gastric irradiation, used from the 1930s to the 1960s to decrease stomach acid in patients with recurrent stomach ulcers, could increase the risk of death from cancers of the stomach, lung and pancreas decades after therapy.

Engineer turns to researcher and mentor

Born May 22, 1925 in Milwaukee, Melvin Luther Griem was destined, his colleagues recall, for a life that included engineering. As a teenager, he and some friends designed and built a diving suit, complete with an air pump. These mechanical and engineering skills helped him gain a leadership role in an emerging field, where science was often far ahead of technology, and those interested in testing new approaches had to build their own equipment.

“He was an engineer at heart; he could fix electronics or replace the engine in his Mercedes,” recalled his son–in–law, Anthony Montag, professor of pathology. “When he was unable to get parts for his microwave oven, he machine–tooled a new part and reassembled the oven. It worked perfectly, but he was incapable of using it to heat up leftovers.”

Griem joined the United States Army in May 1943, having just turned 18, and served as a radio repairman until the end of World War II, in August 1945. He returned to college, earning his BS in electrical engineering in 1948, MS in physics in 1950 and MD in 1953, all from the University of Wisconsin.

In medical school he met fellow student Sylvia Fudzinski, also of Milwaukee. “I couldn’t read my notes,” he often joked, but he could read hers, “so I married her.”

After graduation, they spent a year as interns at the University of Kansas. Both came to the University of Chicago in 1954 to complete their residencies, hers in dermatology and his in radiology. He joined the faculty as an instructor in radiology in 1957, was appointed assistant professor in July 1958 and associate professor in 1961. In 1966 he became a professor and section chief of radiation therapy. That same year he was named director of the Chicago Tumor Institute, a group that pulled together radiation treatment resources from the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago and Michael Reese Hospital.

A prolific researcher and author of academic papers, Griem also trained dozens of radiation oncologists, including many academicians and chairmen, and was a 2010 recipient of the Paul C. Hodges Alumni Excellence Award given by UChicago’s Department of Radiology.

He was also a serious collector of model trains and a member of the Jackson Park Yacht Club, where he served as “fleet surgeon.”

Griem is survived by his three children: Katherine Griem, Robert Griem and Melanie Griem; three grandchildren, Hugh, William and Caroline Montag; and his sister Margaret Griem Williamson. His wife Sylvia died in 2010. Two of their children became physicians: Katherine a radiation oncologist, and Melanie a dermatologist.

A memorial service is being planned. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the American Cancer Society, Illinois Division, 225 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1200, Chicago, IL, 60601.