Robert Vonderheide, MD, DPhil, director of the Abramson Cancer Center, and John Glick, MD, professor emeritus, sit facing each other in armchairs in Glick's office in March 2021.
Robert H. Vonderheide, MD, DPhil and John H. Glick, MD

The National Cancer Act passed 50 years ago, lighting a spark that would revolutionize cancer care. In time, the University of Pennsylvania and its Abramson Cancer Center came to fuel many of the transformational changes in oncology across the landscape. In advance of retirement, Dr. John 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.

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 the University of Pennsylvania and its Abramson Cancer Center (ACC), so it has across the world — and in many notable cases, Penn has driven the revolution.

A colorful illustration of a cancer cellNo one knows this better than John H. Glick, MD, 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, MD, DPhil, currently the director of the ACC, was among these recruits in 2001.

In March, the longest-serving and current ACC directors sat down for a reflective conversation on the past five decades that have set oncology ablaze — at Penn Medicine and radiating around the world.

The Origins of an Extraordinary Cancer Center

Robert H. Vonderheide, MD, DPhil, looks to the camera through the opening between benches in a lab while wearing a white coat.Robert H. Vonderheide (RHV): Thank you for having a conversation with me about your amazing career. You are the longest serving director of the Abramson Cancer Center in history. And your impact has been felt of course, in the cancer center, but also all over this campus, all over this university, the Academy of Master Clinicians, the Roberts Proton Therapy Center, (our leadership in) cell and gene therapy, and you have cut a national figure in roles such as that of president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. You brought us a friendship with the Abramson family that transformed this place.

So I wanted to say before we started, and as one of your mentees, thank you. As the current director of the Abramson Cancer Center and a leader in Penn Medicine, I’m humbled to have the opportunity to interview you. And as a member of the University of Pennsylvania, I want to extend our deepest gratitude for your incredible lifetime of service to Penn. And so, welcome.

John, you came to Penn three years after the National Cancer Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Nixon. You have a better perspective than anyone about how the field has changed and grown. Take me back to what it was like at that time.

John Glick, MD, emeritus professor of Hematology/Oncology, at his office in the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine in March 2021John H. Glick, MD (JHG): In 1974, cancer was a feared disease. And cancer care was fragmented, where it existed at all. It was basically a surgical disease — and maybe the surgeons would refer a patient to a radiotherapist. It wasn’t even called “radiation oncology” then. Medical oncology was in its infancy. Hematology had been around for maybe a decade, but medical oncologists were rare.

Patient care was not patient-centric. It wasn’t interdisciplinary. The patients did not have hope. There was no discovery or innovation, certainly no merging of state-of-the-art cancer research with patient care.

A black and white photo of John H. Glick, MD, shown in profile as a young man in the 1970s.RHV: What you described is absolutely not at all how we think of cancer care anymore. How did we get here?

JHG: It took us a long time. 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. 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.

RHV: The effort to grow cancer care at Penn was eventually put on a rocket ship with the transformative, $100 million gift in late 1997 from Leonard and Madlyn Abramson, who you met when she had breast cancer and was your patient. She not only survived her disease but became, for decades until her passing just last year, such an important guide for everything we do. In the late nineties, she and Leonard worked with you and thought about a vision to create an extraordinary cancer center here.

JHG: Madlyn and Leonard became my very close friends after her care. We talked about my hopes and dreams, what we wanted to accomplish at Penn, what they wanted to help us accomplish for cancer patients, cancer research, and treatment. By then, we were already an excellent matrix cancer center, designated by the National Cancer Institute as a Comprehensive Cancer Center. We were strong, but we were not exceptional. We did not have the philanthropic resources, the money to recruit the faculty and staff who would put us on track to get into that next level.

Leonard and Madlyn’s gift was not for bricks and mortar, but for the recruitment of the best and brightest scientists, clinicians, social workers, psychiatrists, and nutritionists. They wanted us to take the cancer center from excellence to eminence — to be a place where a patient with cancer said, “I’m going to Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center,” knowing that was where they would get the very best care. They took our cancer center to exceptional heights, and in 2002, President (Judith) Rodin and I worked with the trustees to name the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, in perpetuity. We named the Abramson Cancer Center in recognition of their transformational philosophy, philanthropy, and what they had done for patients through our research.

RHV: Another aspect I wanted to ask you about is the growing physical footprint of the cancer center at Penn. It has expanded massively from where we were in the seventies and eighties to where we are now, looking out your office window at this incredible Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine. That was part of the vision too, wasn't it? John, tell us about that.

The Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine building complex, including the Smilow Center for Translational ResearchJHG: When I came here, cancer care was delivered in a small office for indigent patients in the Gates Pavilion. Patients without insurance were seen at a different area. Within two months, I stopped that because I did not believe in two standards of care; there should be one care standard for all patients.

But we had no oncology beds. Patients were dispersed throughout medical units. We grew very slowly in terms of space. By the late seventies, we developed a four-bed inpatient unit and then expanded to six beds.

RHV: We now have as many hospitals as you used to have beds.

JHG: That's right. We needed to grow. And (through decades of slow growth in physical space) I had a dream and a vision. So in 1990, I proposed an idea and urged the dedication of dedicated space for an Abramson Cancer Center ambulatory program that really encompassed not only interdisciplinary care, but all of the psychosocial and other aspects that are important — it was the forerunner of today’s Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine.

RHV: Its realization took a while. So you, you had to be persistent and patient.

JHG: When I first came here, (it wasn’t just that we needed to grow capacity for more patients, but that we were poised to grow in the way we cared for them). There was no MRI. CAT scan was in its infancy. There was no such thing as anything but histologic examination of tissue. There were no molecular or immunologic studies. But look at it now. Now we have 120, 130 medical oncology patients at one time. We’re going to be moving into the new Pavilion with dedicated oncology space.

The physical plant has grown apace with what is even more important: its people. Physicians, researchers, advanced practice nurses, social workers, all the people are truly what make cancer care so valuable today.

Development Matters: In Gratitude to a Singular Champion

A group portrait photo shows Madlyn Abramson, John Glick, MD, and Leonard Abramson“A cancer diagnosis can be a life-changing event. Every day, for more than 40 years, members of the Abramson Cancer Center have been bringing our patients comfort, hope, and possibility. It has been a great privilege to be able partner with families during their powerful journey.” — John H. Glick, MD

When John H. Glick, MD, came to Penn Medicine in 1974, he immediately saw an opportunity to build a cancer program that could serve the patients and families who inspire him every day. He also held a deep appreciation of the strategic investments that would fulfill that vision.

Here, and in the Development Matters sections that follow below, we celebrate Glick’s visionary approach, commitment to the “big ideas,” and impact.

Through his treasured partnership with Leonard and the late Madlyn Abramson and their marquee event Philly Fights Cancer, spearheaded by daughter Nancy Wolfson, Glick was able to make the Abramson Cancer Center (ACC) the epicenter of translational medicine and birthplace of important new therapies and scientific breakthroughs. He also forged a strong relationship with Penn Medicine Development and Alumni Relations to establish both the Abramson Cancer Center’s dedicated development program and leadership council.

Today, the Abramson Cancer Center is the quintessential example of collaboration among schools and centers across the University of Pennsylvania’s vast and interconnected campus. More than this, it speaks to the power of compassion, hope, and partnership in a relentless mission to eradicate cancer.

Powered by Great People

Recruiting top talent has long been a major area of focus for Glick and one that has made a lasting imprint on both the ACC and Penn Medicine as a whole. Between 1999 and 2004, he recruited 90 faculty members, including Carl June, MD, who went on to develop the first FDA-approved therapy to fight cancer using the body’s own engineered immune cells; Celeste Simon, PhD, the scientific director of the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute; and Susan Domchek, MD, a world-leading expert in hereditary cancer and executive director of the Basser Center for BRCA.

RHV: You’ve recruited so many folks to Penn. I believe you’ve recruited or helped recruit half of the clinical chairs who are currently serving. So your legacy will live on. Can you help us, please? What do you look for when you’re recruiting top leaders?

JHG: Leadership. I look for passion. I look for a track record. I look for integrity. And as importantly, I look with how the individual will fit into Penn’s special culture. Our culture is one of collaboration, consensus, collegiality. Penn is not an institution of siloed departments. I look for people who will work with our centers and institutes and not be afraid of them.

Carl June, MD, a professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies, looks into a microscope.RHV: One guy you recruited was this kid named Carl June. And he came rolling in here with ideas like, ‘We’re going to make T cells grow and re-engineer them.’ I think he must have sounded crazy. But not to you. You believed in him. And I’m wondering, why did you believe in Carl June from the moment you met him?

JHG: He struck a chord in me.

Cancer care at that time was primarily surgery, radiation oncology, chemotherapy, sometimes hormone therapy for breast and other cancers. And here this young guy had a vision for immunotherapy, and I knew that cancer care, without a next step of immunotherapy or gene therapy, was going to plateau. We had to make a big leap forward. We had to take a risk. Taking a risk, a calculated one, was important.

Also remember, when we recruited Carl June, we were able to do so with the Abramson gift, but we also poured enormous resources (into cell and gene therapy) from the cancer center’s endowment, (other) gifts, some facilities funds, money from department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, in order to build the first cell and vaccine production facility. (Using this combination of resources,) we supported Carl June for five years before he got his first major grants.

In a photo from late 1997, John Glick, MD, then director of the cancer center at Penn, sits at a table in front of microphones with philanthropist Madlyn Abramson.
Glick and Madlyn Abramson in 1997 announcing the Abramsons’ landmark $100 million gift
RHV: You’ve touched thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of patients through the years with all those you’ve mentored. What lessons do you consider the most important to impart?

JHG: You must be a role model. You have to be in the trenches. There’s more to medicine than the electronic medical record or what you read in textbooks. Try and impart the art of medicine. Act as if every patient is your only patient. Every patient should be treated as you would treat a member of your own family — with dignity, compassion, hope, and caring, and meticulous care. I don’t believe you can be too meticulous.

Communication is key. Even as technology has changed, patients have always had a way to contact me with questions. And you need to be responsive — understanding what worries them. For instance, patients are anxious when they have a scan and they know they’re going to have an appointment a week later. I try and get the results back to them that day. I try and impart this style of practicing medicine to our students, residents, and fellows. It relieves patients’ anxieties and brings them to the table as a part of their own care team.

Just as important, I try and teach mentees the value of listening. There was a study published a few years back where a doctor said, “How are you?” and they timed how long it was until the doctor interrupted the patients. It was just seconds. I try to listen to patients, not only to the words they say, but to the words behind the words they say. Finding out about their families and the children — their personal lives’ impacts on how they deal with their illness. You have to look at the whole patient.

And then, making sure that every question from your patients is answered. I encourage patients to come in with a written list of questions. As a doctor, I teach that you have to answer them all. No question is unimportant.

RHV: Throughout medical school, we teach our students to ask one question first, and that’s the chief complaint: Why are you here? And I noticed from watching you and so many great clinicians here at the Abramson Cancer Center, that’s not the first question we ask. We say, “How are you? Who are you here with? Where are you from? What do you do for a living?” The focus is, “Let’s get to know each other,” not, “Why are you here?” There are certain medical emergencies where you have to answer (the latter question), but for cancer care, I couldn’t agree with you more that we need to learn about our patients. And, if we do that, we’ll be able to take better care of them, I think.

I wanted to go into more depth and talk about Penn Medicine’s Academy of Master Clinicians. Now this was an achievement. I think you had been working toward it for many, many years, but this was something that you accomplished and accelerated even after you were no longer director of the Abramson Cancer Center. It has become a model across the country. It’s a point of great pride here at Penn Medicine. Where did you get the idea and how did you make it happen?

JHG: In 2012, (Dean) Larry Jameson did his first strategic plan and there was a working group on clinical excellence, but it had no budget, so it went nowhere. We had always valued research and education at Penn Medicine. We had an award called the IS Ravdin Master Clinician award. But it was an award, not a program.


In a photo from 2013, J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, EVP of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and dean of the Perelman School of Medicine, John Glick, MD, professor emeritus, and Ralph W. Muller, then-CEO of UPHS, pose with a certificate signifying the establishment of the Academy of Master Clinicians.
Jameson, Glick, and then-UPHS CEO Ralph W. Muller upon establishing the Academy of Master Clinicians in 2013
So in a desire to build on this task force to promote clinical excellence, I wrote a short white paper to Larry and Ralph (Muller, then CEO of UPHS) describing the potential for developing a program in clinical excellence. And then I spent six months talking to all the stakeholders: every chair, people at CHOP, and so on. And so in 2013, I then proposed to Larry and Ralph that we create an Academy of Master Clinicians that would recognize, reward, promote, and implement a program of clinical excellence. But of course there was no money. So I went to Independence Blue Cross. They gave us an initial $500,000 to start the program, and I committed to raise money to endow the program in perpetuity.

We elected our first class in 2013. We now have 110 members, about three percent of the CPUP faculty. We’ve expanded it. We have regional physicians as part of Penn Primary Care. The program has been one of the most satisfactory accomplishments and experiences I’ve had here because you get clinicians from all entities, Pennsylvania Hospital, Presbyterian, Princeton, etc., from all departments, all ranks, in a room, talking frankly about their frustrations, their hopes, and how to make clinical medicine within Penn Medicine better. This group had an influence on the electronic medical record, well-being initiatives, and more. We published the first statement on professionalism three years before the School of Medicine adopted that.

Now, from the generosity of patients, we’ve endowed the program in perpetuity with over $4 million in contributions. So the program will persist. We were able to write a paper on it and it has been published in Academic Medicine. It’s now being emulated in other medical schools. It’s one of the most satisfactory accomplishments for me being a doctor: working with other doctors to promote unbelievable patient care at Penn Medicine.

Development Matters: Human Capital

In a photo from the early 2000s, Angela DeMichele, MD, a professor of Hematology/Oncology, looks at radiology scans on a lightboard.“Glick was able to shape the Abramson Cancer Center into a national model of excellence because his strategic investments extended into “human capital”: recruiting, cultivating, and mentoring future faculty leaders in cancer. He arrived at Penn as part of an already historic line of cancer center directors: Peter C. Nowell, MD, whose co-discovery of the Philadelphia chromosome proved cancer was a genetic disease; and Richard “Buz” Cooper, MD, who designed the multidisciplinary model for cancer care that is standard today. To that tradition Glick brought a culture of compassionate cancer care, giving patients the most powerful medicine: confidence to get through the rigors of treatment. He was determined to provide faculty every opportunity to follow in such storied footsteps — at Penn and beyond.

Thanks to the gift establishing the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute, Glick was able to recruit 90 new members to Penn Medicine’s faculty. He was proud to be the inaugural Ann B. Young Assistant Professor in Cancer Research and so, over the decades, he would help establish 20 endowed professorships in the Division of Hematology/Oncology alone. With Glick’s name as a byword for superlative cancer care and research, two endowed professorships were created in his honor: the John H. Glick, MD Professorship in Cancer Research and the John H. Glick, MD Abramson Cancer Center Director’s Professorship.

In a photo taken at a celebratory event, three Hematology/Oncology professors pose together: Kevin Fox, MD, Angela DeMichele, MD, and Lynn Schuchter, MD (division chief)
Glick mentees Kevin Fox, MD, Angela DeMichele, MD, MSCE (also pictured above left), and Lynn Schuchter, MD

Glick’s philosophy on clinical excellence would naturally spread beyond the cancer faculty, and he raised an initial $500,000 gift from Independence Blue Cross to kick start Penn Medicine’s Academy of Master Clinicians — an august body of exceptional physicians counting more than 110 members. He raised an additional $4 million for the Academy’s endowment, ensuring that the finest and most noble qualities of Penn Medicine clinicians would be celebrated and instilled into junior faculty for generations to come.

In a photo that appears to date from the 1970s, philanthropist Ann B. Young poses with husband H. Albert Young
Ann B. Young and H. Albert Young

A Devoted Clinician

RHV: You have always said taking care of patients is your highest priority. Are there particular patient experiences that stay with you or stories that you could tell us to highlight how that is so special to you?

JHG: I’ve thought about that. The first was when I was a medical student at Columbia Presbyterian. We had a 12-week rotation of medicine. Soon after I started that as a third-year medical student, I was assigned to a patient who had acute leukemia. He was 22, but they didn’t tell him his diagnosis. They told him he had aplastic anemia and I was told emphatically, “You may not tell the patient the diagnosis.”

He got a little bit better and went home. But then he had to be readmitted. On the elevator as he was being readmitted, the medical assistant had his (chart’s) front sheet open to the patient and he saw his diagnosis, acute leukemia. And he came to me asking, “Why didn't you tell me the truth?” I vowed after that, that I would always be honest and empathetic with patients.

A still image from a Channel 10 TV segment in 1991 shows a young John Glick, MD, now an emeritus professor, reviewing mammogram scans with reporter Lu Ann Cahn, who was his patient.
Channel 10 TV Reporter Lu Ann Cahn was just 35 years old in 1991 and the mother of a four-year-old when she invited cameras into the hospital to document her own fight with breast cancer. She hoped to inform other young women, before the internet, that early detection was lifesaving.

And another influential experience was Madlyn Abramson. She came to see me in October of 1985 with Leonard, and she had locally advanced breast cancer, many positive nodes. It’s hard to imagine. In 1985, adjunct chemotherapy for post-menopausal women was not the standard of care. And so she was treated with breast conservation surgery and very aggressive chemotherapy. There’s no Neulasta (pegfilgrastim, to stimulate white blood cell growth and counteract damage from chemotherapy). And I told her, I’m not even going to go look at her (white blood cell) counts. She went through that chemotherapy like nobody else. True grit. She never blinked. She just said, “Let’s do it.” She always impressed me from day one as a can-do person, kind, thoughtful, interested in the future, interested in me, and interested in Penn and cancer. But she was also the role model for a patient who confronts their disease, forthright. And I want to be cured, let’s get out.

John Glick, MD, emeritus professor of Hematology/Oncology, smiles for a selfie photo taken with and by Lu Ann Cahn, former TV reporter, during her last oncology medical appointment as Glick's patient in 2020.
In 2020, one week after celebrating her daughter’s wedding, Cahn saw her oncologist for the last time — she learned at once that she was cured and that he was retiring. Her message for cancer patients now: “Live today. Dare today. No regrets. And thank God for this man who shepherded and watched over my health to help bring he mere today… John Glick, I’m forever grateful.”

RHV: You introduced me to her, many, many years ago. I was immediately struck by her presence. When I became director of the ACC, I would call her from time to time. I learned 8:30 in the morning was the perfect time to call her house. And we would exchange what was going on in each other’s lives. She would always have a question for me, and it was penetrating and insightful. She never told me what to do. She just had always had a question for me: “Have you thought about this? Have you thought about that?”

How do we see, how do we experience Madlyn Abramson now? I feel her presence and I’m wondering if you can articulate that.

JHG: I feel her presence, too. (It’s with us when we are) striving for excellence, whether in the clinic or research. Striving for patient care that is so unique that patients want to come to Penn. Holistic care that involves not only state-of-the-art science and great clinical outcomes, but taking care of the person as a whole. She wanted us to do that. That was part of our original mission. The Abramson Cancer Center, which they raised to a new level. I feel her now looking over my shoulder, asking me questions. Are we living up to her hopes and dreams? Are we striving for the best we can do?

RHV: I want to continue on the theme of friends you met along the way in your good friend, Arlen Specter (the longtime U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania). When this country was in trouble, you and Arlen talked about how we could invest in medical research. I look back to that moment as a landmark moment, I’m wondering if you could take us behind the scenes a little bit.

Late Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter stands with his arm around his oncologist, John Glick, MD, emeritus professor, in a snapshot with a grateful message from Sen. Specter scrawled on top.
Glick cleared his schedule to be at the side of his patient, U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (1930-2012), during Friday afternoon chemotherapy infusions, providing both compassion and conversation.
JHG: Senator Specter originally had stage four B Hodgkin’s disease in his 70s. Not a good disease. Not a good prognosis. And he went into a prompt, complete remission of stage four disease and stayed in remission for over three years, then relapsed. He then went on to weekly chemotherapy for 12 weeks and he wanted to be treated on Friday afternoons. Why? Because the Senate got out on Thursday afternoons and he could take the train up Friday and be treated and be back at work on Monday morning. And so I had the opportunity to sit with him for two hours each week while he got chemotherapy. He liked to talk, and Friday wasn’t my clinic day and I freed up the time.

Remember that he was the chairman of the subcommittee on appropriations for NIH, and he wanted to know how we could make giant steps forward in cancer research. Giant steps, transformational steps. He understood NIH paylines. He understood translational research. He understood the long lag time between an advance in the laboratory getting into the clinic.

And so as we talked, he asked me a question out of the blue: “How much does the NIH need? If you said to me, ‘Senator Specter, you need to give the NIH a huge jolt,’ how much money would that be?”

I said, “Well, let me get back to you next week.” And I thought about it. I spoke to a few people.

I said, “Senator, this is speculation. This is a guess, and this is hope, but I’m going to give you the figure of $10 billion.”

Now. I'm sure he got that from many other people. I don’t want to take ownership of that, but that is the figure that went into the stimulus bill for the ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic stimulus package in the aftermath of the 2008 recession). I don’t claim ownership, but he did like the idea. And we trusted each other.

RHV: It was a critical moment because in my view, cancer research and biomedical research had come to a point of great fulfillment, but we needed to invest. You advised him in that way, and in the decade that followed, there have been more drugs approved for oncology by the FDA than any other decade ever before. It’s still increasing. And this is what came from basic research.

Charting New Paths through Clinical Research

Improving upon and creating new treatments for cancer has been a hallmark of the past generation of oncology writ large, for the ACC, and for Glick as a clinician-scholar. Glick’s own research has mapped the standard of care for blood cancers and breast cancer.

RHV: You’ve been involved in many landmark discoveries and clinical trial results over the years — in particular, in the year 2000, in a New England Journal of Medicine paper that reversed the field of breast cancer treatment in a day. You were senior author of the paper with a young fellow at the time, Ed Statdmauer, MD’83, now a senior leader here at the ACC, in a study of 500 patients examining the role of bone marrow transplant for advanced breast cancer. Can you tell us about that and how it came to be?

JHG: In the early 1990s, there were small studies claiming incredible results in patients with metastatic breast cancer by using high-dose chemotherapy plus autologous bone marrow or stem cell transplant. They used historical controls. And because of these studies, treatment practice across the country changed. Clinicians started doing ad-hoc bone marrow transplants in patients with metastatic breast cancer. For-profit centers arose throughout the United States. It was a multibillion dollar industry.

I’m a great believer in evidence-based medicine. I made my career in randomized clinical trials. And so we formed the Philadelphia bone marrow transplant group along with Fox Chase, Jefferson, and Hahnemann. We started the trial in Philadelphia, (got Mayo and Hopkins to join,) and then, because we needed more patients, it expanded to cooperative groups. Penn and Mayo made the decision that we were not going to transplant any patient who didn’t go on the trial. The results, when they came out, showed no difference in progression-free survival, event-free survival, or overall survival for the group that got high dose chemotherapy and bone marrow or stem cell transplant when compared to conventional chemotherapy. When it published in the New England Journal of Medicine, transplant for such patients stopped overnight. Those for-profit centers went out of business and bone marrow transplant for metastatic breast cancer stopped being done in the United States.

RHV: And all the toxicity being delivered to these patients under what turned out to be false hope was reversed.

JHG: The cost in terms of human suffering and the financial cost to our health care industry were instantly reversed (because the transplant was extraordinarily expensive). That’s one of our proudest accomplishments, and it couldn’t have happened without the incredible team at Penn.

It really shows you the importance of randomized clinical trials. Penn has developed its reputation in developing new therapies and approaches, and that’s how you have to do it. When the FDA approves a drug, whether it be from Penn or elsewhere, they need data that is evidence-based. If you’re going to change the standard of care, you have to do it the right way, and having the data showing why is critically important.

On a partially demolished building of the former Philadelphia Civic Center, a red cloth banner hanging from a crane reads, "This one is for you, John Glick."
The demolition of the Civic Center made way for the construction of the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine at that site.
RHV: Another modality that you played such a visionary role in is proton therapy — at the Roberts Proton Therapy Center. There was a tremendous amount of excitement about protons 15 years ago, but the effort at Penn was always focused around building the evidence base. When you were proposing the proton center here, you faced a lot of naysayers, but you persisted.

JHG: I’ve always felt that if you have a dream and vision and you believe in it, then when you get a “no,” that’s halfway to “yes.” And I’ve done that throughout my whole career: If I believe in something, I will pursue it many times.

RHV: Now we have the largest facility of integrated conventional radiation and proton therapy in the world. It has had a huge impact — a huge benefit for patients. Take us through that journey.

JHG: I worked very closely with Gillies McKenna, who was chair of Radiation Oncology in the early ‘90s. He became very interested in proton therapy, but it was hard to convince anybody at Penn that we should do this. I said to Gillies, “Let’s wait. I believe in it.” When Arthur Rubinstein came to Penn (as executive vice president of the University for the Health System and medical school dean, in 2001), we had an opportunity to present it again. And by then, things had changed, and our leadership thought it would be potentially very good for patients and would differentiate Penn and the ACC from other centers around the country. It would make us unique. We had a great, collaborative team converge, including (then UPHS CEO) Ralph Muller, (current UPHS CEO) Kevin Mahoney, (then chair of Radiation Oncology) Steve Hahn, and Jim Metz (current chair of Radiation Oncology).

We found the technology, and then we had to get the money to make the vision come to fruition. The Roberts family’s gift was pivotal. They (Wharton alumni Ralph J. Roberts, his son Brian L. Roberts, and his wife Aileen) wanted to do something very important. Their $15 million gift really gave us the spark to go forward. We now have the largest proton therapy center in the world, and that has really made the difference in the lives of both children and adults with cancer.

RHV: That’s a good point. We treat both children and adults here, for brain and spinal cord tumors, lung tumors, treatments for cancer recurrences — tumors which were not otherwise able to be safely or effectively treated with radiation, and published the seminal studies defining the best uses of the technology. And now we’re taking that technology to something called flash radiation therapy, where all that energy is delivered in less than a second. It’s all about better treatments with less toxicity.

Next year, Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health will open an additional proton therapy center to care for area patients closer to home. Read more about this and other ways the ACC is bringing advanced cancer care to patients across the region.

Development Matters: A Clinical Home for the Abramson Cancer Center


In a photo taken at the opening of the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine in 2008, John Glick, MD, emeritus professor, poses with Lyn and the late George M. Ross
Glick with Lyn (right) and the late George M. Ross at the opening of the Perelman Center

Perhaps the most clearly visible evidence of Glick’s impact on cancer care — indeed, the entire Penn Medicine campus — is the Ruth and Raymond Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine (PCAM). By championing and fundraising for a patient-centered experience at Penn Medicine, Glick helped realize a clinical home for the Abramson Cancer Center that has proven to be a game-changer for its patients, physicians, and health care professionals. Here was a facility that, with multiple specialties working under the same roof, could empower the Abramson Cancer Center to provide convenient, integrated cancer care. Even more, the ACC was able to expand its offerings, including the first and longest-running adult cancer survivorship program in the United States — made possible, notably, through one of the inaugural Livestrong grants from the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

Posing with blueprint plans for the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine in 2004: John H. Glick, MD, professor emeritus, Ralph W. Muller, former CEO of UPHS, Michael Parmacek, MD, chair of Medicine, Arthur Rubenstein, MBBCh, professor emeritus and former dean, and Amy Gutmann, University president
Reviewing plans for the Perelman Center in 2004, (back) Glick, then-UPHS CEO Muller, Michael Parmacek, MD, chair of Medicine, (front) then-Dean Arthur H. Rubenstein, MBBCh, Penn President Amy Gutmann

More than that, PCAM was the first critical piece of a new, comprehensive biomedical complex. Glick first proposed the construction of a proton facility at Penn in 1994; after a generous naming gift was secured from the Roberts Family, he worked alongside leadership from Penn Medicine’s Department of Radiation Oncology to build a world-class, comprehensive, and integrated proton therapy program that included the Penn-Walter Reed partnership.

A Dream Job and a Lasting Legacy

John Glick, MD, smiles while standing with his arms crossed, wearing a white coatGlick has served as a guiding force at Penn Medicine — building the medical oncology program from its inception as a young physician, spearheading philanthropy and talent recruitment that were both essential to building the ACC as it stands today, establishing Penn Medicine’s Academy of Master Clinicians to promote and perpetuate clinical excellence in all specialties, and keeping patients’ lives and their needs at the heart of every goal. He has announced plans to retire at the end of the 2020-2021 academic year.

RHV: We can see so far because we stand on the shoulders of giants. You’re a giant, John, and I’m hoping you don’t mind my standing on your shoulders for a little bit. I have one more question. When I was thinking of applying to become the director of the ACC, I came to visit you in this office for advice, as I often had done over the years. And you simply asked me, what did I think of the prospect of being the Abramson Cancer Center director? And I said, without really thinking, “It would be my dream job,” and you smiled so big. And then you gave me a big hug. I meant what I said. So my final question for you is, was being ACC director your dream job?

JHG: It was. I’m one of the very lucky people who can say that their visions and hopes have been realized, and that I’ve been part of accomplishments far beyond my expectations. I never wanted to be a department of Medicine chair, or a dean. I wanted to be the director of a great cancer center, a role which I saw was a way to ensure that I would never give up patient care, which has always been so important to me.

My dream job was to stay at Penn for my entire career: to expand my horizons, to take the cancer center to the best that it could under my leadership. But I knew that the directors who came after me would take the ACC to even greater heights of excellence. I’m proud of what I’ve done, but I’m prouder of the people who have followed me and what they have done. We continue to be about excellence, compassion, hope, innovation, and discovery.

A Chorus of Thanks

Notable Penn Medicine and ACC leaders share tributes to Glick’s lasting impact.

A large crowd gathered in the atrium of the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine in 2017 to celebrate the FDA approval of the first cellular therapy for cancer, developed at Penn.

A flash mob celebration for the FDA approval of the first CAR T therapy developed at Penn.

“If called upon to list Penn Medicine’s most impactful leaders, you must include John Glick. His accomplishments over the decades bear witness to his extraordinary gifts as a pioneering and compassionate clinician, Cancer Center leader, and institutional citizen. Above all, John is supremely devoted to transmitting the highest form of professionalism. All this and more make him a legendary institutional role model.”

– J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, Executive Vice President, University of Pennsylvania for the Health System, and Dean, Perelman School of Medicine

“Dr. John Glick’s singular commitment to delivering the very best care to each and every patient is ingrained in every care interaction at the Abramson Cancer Center — a vibrant institution that has grown to give patients and their families hope and foster a relentless quest by our faculty and staff to provide even more options to treat cancer. Dr. Glick’s own research for lymphoma and breast cancer has mapped new approaches that have benefitted countless lives both within and well beyond our own institution’s walls. It has been a great pleasure to work beside and learn from John for so many years.”

– Kevin B. Mahoney, CEO, University of Pennsylvania Health System

“One of the first people I sought out when I was appointed department chair in 2005 was John Glick. He gave me invaluable advice on leadership, shared his secrets to successful fundraising, and inspired me to establish a Women's Health Leadership Council. It was the beginning of our 15-year friendship.”

– Deborah Driscoll, MD, Senior Vice President, Clinical Practices of the University of Pennsylvania; Vice Dean for Professional Services, Perelman School of Medicine; Luigi Mastroianni, Jr. Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology

“For over 30 years, John has been the heart and soul of the Abramson Cancer Center. A master clinician and mentor, most of how I practice and think about medical oncology, I learned from John. He has influenced a generation of medical oncologists during the most revolutionary time in the history of cancer treatment. Not a day goes by that I don’t ask, ‘What would John do’? A transformational leader and supporter of his colleagues, patients, and Penn Medicine, and beloved by all.”

– Edward Stadtmauer, MD, Roseman, Tarte, Harrow, and Shaffer Families’ President’s Distinguished Professor of Hematology/Oncology

“John Glick leaves a legacy of starting the cell therapy revolution at Penn Medicine. I am so thankful to him for recruiting me to Penn so that we could share the journey of CAR T leading to Kymriah. That has been a life-changing event in so many ways. I am also proud to call John a friend.”

– Carl June, MD, Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy, Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Director, Center for Cellular Immunoterapies and Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy

“Dr. Glick’s vision for the Abramson Cancer Center was a large reason why I joined the faculty. It has been a true pleasure to watch over the last 20 years as his vision has been realized. I am so proud to be a part of the Abramson Cancer Center.”

– Susan Domchek, MD, Basser Professor in Oncology and Executive Director, Basser Center for BRCA

“John Glick arrived at Penn in the early 1970s, when the clinical specialty of Medical Oncology was still in its infancy, and there existed, even within his own division, skepticism regarding the future and relevance of cancer care. Thankfully, for all of us, John saw the future, and through his tireless, relentless pursuit of excellence, saw to it that Medical Oncology as a clinical specialty, and the Cancer Center as a research entity, grew enormously at a pace appropriate to a world-class institution. He mandated nothing less than complete commitment to this excellence on the part of everyone, including clinicians, clinical investigators, scientists, fellows, nurses, and support staff. Just look how far we have gone, and what we have become. He was the linchpin of this phenomenon, and the credit is his.”

– Kevin Fox, MD, Marianne T. and Robert J. MacDonald Professor in Breast Cancer Care Excellence, Professor of Medicine

“Over the course of our 20-plus-year mentor-mentee relationship beginning during my fellowship, John was always available despite his incredibly busy schedule as Cancer Center Director. His counsel not only steered me toward professional opportunities, but also provided concrete support to my work through helping enroll patients in studies or introducing me to someone who could help get me over a hurdle, while also offering perspective on keeping balance as both my career and family grew up. I know of numerous examples of other mentees John has supported in just the same ways, including some who are new to the field and others who have been on faculty for as long as 25 years. This desire to bring the next generation into our field, to encourage and support excellence in patient care and research, is a core part of John’s being. It is a mark of the level of support we all feel that we’ve stayed here at Penn, our home, and felt the opportunities for growth and professional satisfaction his mentorship has provided us.”

—Angela DeMichele, MD, MSCE, Jill & Alan Miller Endowed Chair in Breast Cancer Excellence, Professor of Medicine

“It is difficult to convey the true enormity of Dr. Glick’s contribution to cancer research, clinical care, philanthropy and faculty recruitment at Penn Medicine. Even with his multiple roles, including director of the Abramson Cancer Center, vice president for resource development, and founding sponsor of the Academy of Master Clinicians, he always remained as the quintessential ‘doctor’s doctor.’ I continue to cherish our four decades of friendship and collaboration.”

– Peter D. Quinn, DMD, MD, Schoenleber Professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery

“John Glick is a consummate physician/oncologist. His devotion to his patients is widely recognized and his care of them and their families is exemplary. Everyone knows that John is available to them 24 hours per day and 7 days per week. Patients are referred to John from all over the USA and they benefit from his remarkable clinical expertise and empathic approach to their illness.”

– Arthur H. Rubenstein, MBBCh, Professor of Medicine and former EVP of the University for the Health System and dean of the Perelman School of Medicine (2001-2011)

“John Glick has done more to shape the culture and impact of the ACC than any other person in its history. John always taught us: Treat your patients as though they were family. And that philosophy has touched everything he built at Penn Medicine and at the ACC. He recruited me and so many of the faculty in the Hem/Onc division and the ACC. John’s impact on our Cancer Center will be felt for generations. He is my colleague, my mentor and most importantly, one of my dearest friends.”

– Lynn Schuchter, MD, Division Chief and C. Willard Robinson Professor of Hematology-Oncology

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