Dr. Charlotte Tan, childhood cancer expert

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Gloria Negri
Globe Staff / April 1, 2008

Dr. Charlotte Tan, a pioneer in treating childhood cancer, died of pneumonia March 22 at her Brookline home. She was 84.

Colleagues said Dr. Tan was one of the country's leading pediatric oncologists during her more than four decades at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, where she was vice chairman for developmental therapeutics from 1974 to 1996, when she retired.

In particular, she was the first to explore the use of several cancer drugs in the treatment of childhood malignancies, said Dr. Richard O'Reilly, chairman of the department of pediatrics at Sloan-Kettering. O'Reilly said Dr. Tan's studies of such drugs as dactinomycin led to their introduction into multidrug regimens to treat children with leukemia and cancers of developing bone, muscle, and nerve cell.

Among Dr. Tan's better-known patients was Robin Bush, then 3, the daughter of former president George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush. The child died of leukemia in 1953.

"At a time of great challenge in our lives, Charlotte Tan, through her loving care, gave comfort to our daughter, Robin, the Bushes said in a letter to Dr. Tan's family. "She gave of herself unlike anyone else; and then when our daughter passed away, she gave us comfort and guidance. Dr. Tan was a wonderful doctor and a wonderful friend, and we loved her."

Another condolence came from the office of the Rev. Billy Graham, recalling the trip he and his wife took to China with Dr. Tan and her husband in 1988.

In addition to Dr. Tan's discoveries in developmental therapeutics, O'Reilly said, she was also widely recognized for her contributions to the treatment of children with Hodgkin's disease. She worked tirelessly, he said, "to ensure that the most promising new drugs would be available to children with cancer early in their development and successfully treated hundreds of young patients who are now cured, healthy adults leading productive lives throughout the world."

Many of those success stories gather annually at Sloan-Kettering to pay tribute to the doctors, like Dr. Tan, who saved their lives. In 1990, an article in Good Housekeeping described the reunions, which attracted a large group of adult survivors of childhood cancer, and pointed out that "20-odd years ago, a photograph such as this could not have been taken - there would have been too many empty spaces."

"Dr. Tan had lots of patients," O'Reilly said by phone. "She took well over 400 kids with Hodgkin's, and most of them are alive and well today.

"Charlotte became very devoted to the children and their families," he said, "She watched over them like a mother hen."

At Sloan-Kettering, there is a reminder of her accomplishments: The Charlotte Tan Fund for Developmental Therapeutics, to train others in pediatric oncology.

While she used her maiden surname in her professional life, in her personal life she went by Charlotte Hsu, the wife of Moses Hsu, a biblical scholar, who died in 2001.

Charlotte Tan Hsu was born in Kiang-Si, China. She earned her medical degree at Xiangya Medical College in 1947 and interned at Nanjing's Central Hospital. When the Communists took over China, Dr. Tan left on a freighter for New York and first worked at St. Barnabas Hospital in Newark.

Word of her work in childhood cancer in China had traveled to this country, and Charles Everett Koop, a pediatric surgeon at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia who went on to become US surgeon general, brought Dr. Tan there. In 1952, she joined the staff of Sloan-Kettering.

Her daughter, Alicia Hsu, a Brookline schoolteacher, recalled that while she and her mother were in New York her father lived overseas in Hong Kong during the years she was growing up. Hsu recalled that their home "was always filled with exchange students from China, church friends, and family. Mother loved to cook elaborate Chinese meals of colorful and fragrant dishes."

She spoke of her mother's embrace of Christianity. "I grew up knowing that my mother was on a mission from God to ease the suffering of children and their families who faced childhood cancer," she said.

When Dr. Tan moved here after her retirement she became active in the Chinese Christian community in Boston.

"Mother was an inspiration for hundreds of people: hospital colleagues, medical students, church leaders, theological students, nieces, nephews, friends, and neighbors," Hsu said.

She said her mother loved to sing sacred songs, including spirituals. On one vacation at a resort in upstate New York, "I woke to hear my mother's voice floating out over the lake singing, 'Every Time I Feel the Spirit.' When I looked out I saw her pedaling a pedal boat out in the middle of the lake, reading her Bible, and singing at the top of her lungs!"

In addition to her daughter, Dr. Tan leaves a sister, Tian Jin Tan of Xiamen, China; a brother, Tian Zhe Tan, of Xinjiang, China; and three grandchildren.

Services have been held.

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