1980 - 1989

By the 1980s, the NZSO had generated considerable interest with over one hundred subscribing members. Yet, most members' engagement with the Society was limited to reading the conference proceedings. Approximately thirty people attended the 1980 meeting that was held at the University of Otago Medical School.1

The meetings were still much larger than the half-day events that took place in a single laboratory across the late-1960s and early-1970s. Rey Noronha attended one of the first NZSO meetings in 1972. He moved to the Saint Louis University School of Medicine shortly afterwards but returned to Dunedin in 1980, and later served as president of the Society from 1985 to 1986. Upon re-joining the NZSO in 1981, he remarked on how the Society had 'grown from a small group of scientists gathering fairly informally in a single laboratory room to the present status of a full-scale major meeting involving speakers from all over the world'.2

NZSO 1982 programme

Draft conference programme, 1982.

The inclusion of high profile international speakers had been a feature of the NZSO since its inception. Limited funding meant meeting convenors initially scheduled the annual events to coincide with a visit by an international researcher or liaised with another society to share the cost of the speakers' flights and accommodation. Increasing support from the Cancer Society, and later from pharmaceutical companies, enabled meeting convenors to invite international researchers to the meetings and to cover their travel costs.3

The emphasis on international speakers is perhaps most clearly illustrated by the annual Bruce Cain Memorial Lectures which were established after his unexpected death in January 1981. International scientists and medical oncologists delivered the Memorial Lectures for the first twenty-six years from 1982 to 2008. While the lectures continue to feature high-profile international speakers, three New Zealand scientists and one clinician have also delivered the lectures since 2009.

NZSO call for papers

Call for papers published in the New Zealand Medical Journal, April 1982.

The 1980s also saw increasing numbers of clinicians attending the meetings. From the early-1980s, medical oncologists started to return to New Zealand having completed their training overseas, often at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London. In 1981, Bernie Fitzharris returned to Christchurch where he had started his training eight years earlier. He became the first purpose-trained medical oncologist in the country.
Other medical oncologists followed suit. Vernon Harvey returned to New Zealand in 1984 after he completed his specialist training in medical oncology at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London. He recalls that the NZSO provided a forum for clinicians – who were 'hugely outnumbered' by the scientists – to learn about the science behind cancer treatment:

It was the time when you could get more knowledge about cancer really, and about how cancer works, and how cells grow, and how you can try and interrupt that growth … Because usually when you went away – if you did go away – you went away to the American Society of Clinical Oncology and you'd go to the clinical talks to learn about diseases and how you treated diseases rather than basic cancer biology. To me, the best bit of [the NZSO] was learning about cancer biology.

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David Perez returned to New Zealand in 1984. For the next seven years, he was the only medical oncologist from Oamaru to Invercargill. The NZSO enabled David to meet other clinicians who worked in oncology but who had not undergone specific training. He identifies Barry Colls from Christchurch as someone who was especially supportive of younger oncologists.
David recalls that the earlier meetings primarily featured scientific papers. Clinical research 'was only a minor component'. Nevertheless, the 'scientists were very keen to talk to the clinicians and encourage them to do some research themselves to present'. He discusses the developments in cancer treatments from chemotherapy to the rise of 'molecular targeted therapies'.4

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Bridget Robinson returned to New Zealand two years later in 1986. She had completed her MD at the Royal Marsden Hospital and continued to conduct small research projects alongside her clinical work at Christchurch Hospital. She explains, 'I did go to most of the meetings in those days and I saw it as relevant because I'd been exposed to research'.5

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Scientists welcomed the increasing involvement of clinicians. Tony Reeve joined the NZSO in the mid-1980s after learning about the meetings from Dick Wilkins, his colleague at the University of Otago. Tony found:

Getting to this group of people, and you know hearing them talk about their problems and their lexicon – their dictionary of words – and seeing how it all fitted together. You know, 'what is cancer?' Starting with the cancer, whereas I was starting with the gene … I found that incredibly rooting, you know, to the earth, putting my feet down squarely.6

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NZSO tony Reeve
NZSO 1980 1989

Tony Reeve and Dick Wilkins featured in the 1988 TVNZ documentary:Where Life's Gone Wrong.

Tony describes the earlier meetings as 'very low key, it was old Kiwi style'. Members would 'just get together and have a good time and talk about cancer. And as a result, it was very educational and it built up strong networks which is something that just doesn't happen easily'.
He explains that the relationships that developed at the NZSO broke down any communication barriers between scientists and clinicians:

The clinicians look at scientists and think 'God, they're brainy people. I don't understand a word that they're talking about' … It goes the other way too, where the scientists can't understand what the clinicians are talking about. But in fact, in order to do good cancer research you have to have that mix of the basic fundamental science and the clinical science going on simultaneously. And so, I think the NZSO was just the perfect breeding ground for that.7

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Lai-Ming Ching made similar observations about the culture of the Society across the 1980s. Lai-Ming joined the NZSO after she returned from Seattle in 1985 and gained employment with the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre, which was then called the Auckland Cancer Research Laboratory. She recalls the meetings were 'so simple then. I mean, we stayed at the nurses' homes instead of fancy hotels' and the conference took place in university lecture theatres.

Lai-Ming explains that any communication barriers between scientists and clinicians at the NZSO were minor compared with those that can arise among the researchers from a range of fields who work in drug development:

The language differences in talking chemistry and talking biology are bigger than for us to be talking to clinicians. So, I don't think it was a major concern. I think the clinicians knew enough about what we were saying, we did all our stuff in mice and they did it in humans, but it was still a cancer.8

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Lai-Ming's experience as a biologist was very different from some of her colleagues during this period. Bill Denny explains that scientists in the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre range from 'molecular modelling, through chemistry, through biochemistry, through tumour biology … and the chemists are really at the far end'. Consequently, he and the other chemists who attended the NZSO meetings were 'really quite divorced' from the clinical papers.9

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The increasing involvement of clinicians generated heightened support from pharmaceutical companies. The executive committee of the NZSO had first approached pharmaceutical companies and other businesses in the late-1970s to request they sponsor an award at the annual meetings. The members had attended other conferences that offered prizes and noted a marked improvement in the standard of presentations when awards were available.10
Some of the earliest prizes included the Bristol-Meyers Award in Oncology in 1981, followed by the establishment of the Eli Lilly Award (formerly Lilly Industries) for best junior speaker in 1983, and the Farmitalia Award in Clinical Oncology in 1984.

NZSO Advertisement for the Eli Lilly Prize

Christine Morris joined the NZSO as a PhD student in the 1980s. She explains that the awards, which primarily supported trainees, 'drew in a bigger membership and bigger participation'. The meetings provided emerging researchers and clinicians with an opportunity to 'go and have your first presentation and have it critiqued' by experts.11
By the end of the decade, the NZSO had managed to accommodate medical oncologists returning from overseas and foster networks between those working in various aspects of cancer research. Meeting conveners faced a new challenge: to balance the input from sponsors while maintaining the culture and independence of the NZSO.


1Minutes of the 9th Annual General Meeting, 12 September 1980, University of Otago Medical School, NZSO archives.2Letter from Rey Noronha to Bill Manktelow, 12 October 1981, NZSO archives.3The Present State and Future Needs of Cancer Research in New Zealand: A Review Sponsored by the Cancer Society of New Zealand and the Medical Research Council of New Zealand (Auckland: The Society, 1983), p. 181.4Interview with David Perez, 8 March 2018.5Interview with Bridget Robinson, 6 March 2018. 6Interview with Tony Reeve, 8 March 2018. 7Ibid.8Interview with Lai-Ming Ching, 16 February 2018.9Interview with Bill Denny, 7 February 2018. 10Minutes of the 8th Annual General Meeting, 15 September 1979, Wellington Clinical School, NZSO archives. 11Interview with Peter Fitzgerald, Dick Wilkins, and Christine Morris, 5 March 2018.