Tribute to Herman Suit

Herman Suit
It is with a truly heavy heart that we share the news of the passing at age 93 of Herman Suit, M.D., D. Phil, a colossus in American oncology and one of the founders of the Connective Tissue Oncology Society. Herman was born in Waco, Texas. After graduating from University of Houston with a B.A. degree in Biology, he went on to Baylor where he earned an M.D. and a Master’s of Science degree in Biochemistry. He then made the trans-Atlantic leap to Christ Church at Oxford University where he earned his D. Phil. in Radiation Biology where he studied the effect of radiation on human bone marrow cellularity.  While there, he trained in clinical oncology with the charismatic Frank Ellis. He then returned to the U.S. for a clinical fellowship in the Radiation Branch of the U.S. National Cancer Institute, after which he returned to Texas and the MD Anderson Cancer Center Houston where he established fundamental principles in the management of soft tissue sarcomas using radiation and conservative surgery rather than amputation. At MD Anderson, he also developed what is called the Fletcher-Suit applicator for intracavitary radiation for women with cervical and endometrial cancers.  Also at M.D. Anderson he established one of the most important mouse colonies in the world that he brought with him to Massachusetts General Hospital in 1972 as Chief of the Department of Radiation Oncology and Professor of Radiation Oncology at Harvard Medical School, a role in which he served for more than a quarter of a century.The mouse colony, parenthetically is still active and is the largest at Harvard Medical School.

Herman’s legacy is so large and pervasive that it cannot be measured. He developed much of the evidence, from both animal and human studies, that has underpinned the safe use of radiation therapy in the modern era. His concern about late effects drove him to search out techniques that are now such a standard part of our practice that we almost give them no thought at all. These include judicious fractionation, radiation doses that relate to tumor volume and type, shrinking fields, and the integration of radiation with surgery or chemotherapy. Soft tissue sarcomas, previously only amenable to radical surgery, became candidates for combination therapy, and the sparing of young limbs went from dream to norm. Most of all, he will be remembered for his maverick vision that the use of proton beams stood to move radiation therapy and cancer care forward, not incrementally, but in a great bound. In the 1970s he was the first to use protons in a fractionated fashion on patients at the old Harvard Cyclotron in Cambridge. During that time, he recruited another brilliant mind, the physicist Michael Goitein, and together they developed the systems necessary to employ proton beam routinely in the clinic. They pushed, they cajoled, the never took “no” for an answer, but above all else they used evidence to shake the inertia of the traditionalists and naysayers. Herman gathered around him an extraordinary stable of young clinicians making the Massachusetts General Hospital a hothouse for the development of new talent. These trainees became “evangelists” for his philosophy of precision radiation therapy, and advocates for the use of proton beam. Half a century later, proton beam therapy has now become standard around the globe, and Herman remained, to the last, it’s very proud parent.

Dr Suit has served in leadership roles in multiple oncology and research societies in addition to training multiple leaders in Radiation Oncology around the world.  He has served as President of the American Society of Therapeutic Radiation Oncology and also the President of the Radiation Research Society. His lab work continues to this day under the direction of Dr. Rakesh Jain, where tumor microenvironment and angiogenesis of tumor and normal tissues are studied.  He has won numerous distinguished awards including the Gold Medal of the American Society of Therapeutic Radiation Oncology, as well as the American College of Radiology.  He has also won the Charles Kettering Award from the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation, one of the most distinguished awards given.   He has been named to “the one hundred,” a prestigious award from the Mass General Cancer Center, twice.   Just recently, he was named a 2017 Giant of Cancer Care by OncLive in the category of Radiation Oncology.

A particularly enchanting aspect of Herman’s character was his complete disregard for national boundaries. He traveled the world and wherever he found bright young investigators he immediately sought to recruit them to the MGH.  England, Australia, Yugoslavia, Egypt, Japan, it didn’t matter. The tougher the visa, the better! He was a team scout seeking talent in improbable places. The clinic, the lab, even the residency program, was like the United Nations, with heavily accented English the lingua franca. Some stayed in the USA, many returned to their own countries, but almost all went on to become international leaders in radiation oncology.

It is difficult to think of Herman without fondly remembering his wife, Joan Lucia Countryman Suit, PhD., who passed away in 2021 at the age of 90. Herman and Joan shared a love of theater and music. Joan, who brought so much joy to Herman and so many others, was also an accomplished scientist and early pioneer in bacterial genetics. Although he and Joan never had children themselves, their trainees were their family. The Suits were extraordinarily generous, but never made a show of this side of their character. Thanksgiving at the Suit’s home brought together the international fellows and the waifs and strays among the residents who had no family of their own nearby. They regularly gave front row theater and ballet tickets to the trainees and many of us had our introduction to the arts through them. So dedicated were they to the primacy of science and education that they funded a laboratory for high and middle schoolers at the Museum of Science in Boston, to which they were also major donors.

On a lighter note, few of us will ever forget Herman’s collection of bright, modernistic neck ties. His joie de vivre also included a taste for fine wines, fast cars ( including a lime green Corvette), walks in the woods, and a passion for books and libraries.

Herman has left an indelible stamp as an oncologist, taking the practice of radiation therapy from infancy to maturity. He was a “larger than life” figure, and all who were touched by him as colleagues, trainees, or patients, have come away blessed.

Thomas DeLaney, MD, FASTRO
Clinical Professor of Medicine, Radiation Oncology, Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine
Andres Soriano Emeritus Professor of Radiation Oncology, Harvard Medical School

Anthony Zietman, MD, FASTRO
Jenot and William Shipley Chair in Radiation Oncology, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital