Dr. Francis Carter Wood: International Authority on Cancer, First to Lead the Cancer Center

"An unequaled authority on cancer but humble always when confronted by the human tragedy of an incurable cancer patient."

March 4, 2022
Old portrait of Francis Carter Wood in a study or library.

Dr. Francis Carter Wood, inaugural director of the Crocker Special Research Fund, the cancer research program at Columbia (Credit: Archives & Special Collections, Health Sciences Library, Columbia University)

Dr. Francis Carter Wood earned his medical degree from Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons (P&S) in 1894—a pivotal moment in scientific discovery. One year later, German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen would make his X-ray discovery followed by the discovery of radium by famous scientists and Nobel laureates Marie and Pierre Curie.  

Following graduation, Dr. Wood trained as a surgeon at neighboring St. Luke’s Hospital. He continued his surgical training abroad in Vienna and Berlin, before returning to St. Luke’s in 1897 and beginning a long career both at the hospital and on faculty at Columbia. 

Like the Curies, with whom he became close friends, Dr. Wood was one of the few scientists experimenting with X-ray for the diagnosis of disease and radium for cancer treatment. Appointed the inaugural director of Columbia’s Crocker Special Research Fund in 1912, an ancestor to the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC), he helped pioneer the use of X-ray and radiotherapy and became a leading expert in cancer research.  

Nine years into his directorship, Dr. Wood served as one of the principal organizers of Dr. Marie Curie’s 1921 tour of the United States. “Recognized as one of the world’s greatest scientists, Marie Curie never worked for money…Her only desire, she says, is for a gram of radium—for strangely enough, the woman who gave this precious stuff to humanity has none for experimental use,” Dr. Wood wrote in a 1921 article.  

Dr. Wood chaired the Madame Curie Radium Fund, a committee that helped fundraise more than $1 million to gift radium—an expensive and scarce material—to Dr. Curie so that she could continue her experimental research. The gram of radium was presented to her by President Warren Harding on behalf of the “women of America.” Her U.S. visit, widely publicized as she was one of the most famous scientists of the time, included a stop at Columbia to receive an honorary doctorate degree at the 167th Commencement ceremony. 

An authority on cancer  

In 1912, Columbia became one of the few institutions to devote a research program solely to the investigation and treatment of cancer. The Crocker Special Research Fund was established and funded with a bequest of $1.5 million by western railroad millionaire, George Crocker. When George’s father, Charles Crocker, a founder of the Central Pacific Railroad, died in 1888, he bequeathed his children each a share of his fortune. But George’s inheritance came with one condition--it wouldn’t be released to him unless he proved to his siblings that he could abstain from alcohol for five years straight. He would receive his inheritance after eight years. George passed from cancer and so did his wife before him. 

At the time of Dr. Wood’s appointment as inaugural director of the Crocker Research Fund, he was chair of the Department of Clinical Pathology at P&S and was also attending physician and director of the pathological laboratory and the Department of Radiotherapy at St. Luke’s. He specialized in tissue diagnosis and was particularly interested in the effects of radiation on tissues. His expertise in surgery, pathology, and radiotherapy catapulted him to the forefront as a leading authority on cancer. 

Image of Madame Marie Curie at Columbia University Commencement

Columbia University honored Marie Curie with an honorary doctorate degree at its 167th Commencement, a stop on her 1921 U.S. tour of which Dr. Francis Carter Wood was a principal organizer. (Credit: Columbia University Archives)

Dr. Wood was tapped often to lecture and lead meetings on the scientific advances in cancer and, for more than 15 years, served as editor of the American Journal of Cancer. In 1937, he published the book, Cancer: Nature, Diagnosis, and Cure, providing a comprehensive account of the state of cancer research and treatment.  

Expansion and change for cancer research at Columbia

Towards the end of his directorship, Dr. Wood was faced with the difficult role of conserving the Crocker Research Fund for experimental research, “basic science,” against senior administrators that became more interested in clinical medicine.  

He urged University leadership to reconsider its plans to move the cancer research operation to shared lab space uptown at the medical school. He was against leaving the Crocker’s original building on Amsterdam Ave and 116th Street, where he emphasized that “the close contact with the Departments of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics have been essential to the work of cancer,” and suggested that the Crocker Fund’s activities in cancer, if folded into the medical school, would be confined to just “another department in the University.”   

Image of the Crocker Special Research Fund building

Crocker Special Research Fund Building (Credit: Archives & Special Collections, Health Sciences Library, Columbia University)

In a letter to University President Nicholas Butler, Dr. Wood wrote, “The truth of the matter is that the present tendency of cancer research is along a highly specialized chemical and biophysical line which is much more closely related to academic chemistry, biology, and physics than it is to the lines of research going on in the Medical School.”  

In 1939, the University moved forward with its plans and relocated the Crocker Special Research Fund to two floors of what is now the Vagelos College of Physicians and Science building and changed its name to the Institute of Cancer Research. The strategy behind the name change was partly to attract donors and increase funds to support cancer research. Dr. Wood remained its director until becoming emeritus faculty in 1940.  

Following his retirement as director, Dr. Wood produced an atlas of tumor pathology, the largest collection of its kind for the research community, consisting of some 1,500 photomicrographs with explanatory text. He retired in 1947 from his positions at P&S and St. Luke’s, just a few years before his death in 1951 at the age of 81. Even after retirement, he continued to consult on pathology projects.  

In a memoriam, fellow Columbia scientist, Dr. Wilhelmina F. Dunning wrote, “[Dr. Wood’s] combined knowledge and experience from surgery, radiotherapy, and experimental pathology made him an unequaled authority on cancer but humble always when confronted by the human tragedy of an incurable cancer patient.”