On the afternoon of 28 June 1967, a small group of cancer researchers from Dunedin and Christchurch convened in the University of Otago Medical School for the inaugural meeting of the 'NZ Society for Cancer Research'.
Charles Murray (Maarire) Goodall had called the meeting. The thirty-two-year-old medical researcher had returned to the University of Otago the previous year. He was appointed to take over the position of Director of the Hugh Adam Cancer Research Centre after the unexpected death of his former teacher, Franz Bielschowsky.
The meeting also included Peter Fitzgerald, Director of the Cytogenetics Unit at Christchurch Hospital; Marianne Bielschowsky, a biochemist renowned for developing the New Zealand Black strain of mice for use in cancer research; Barbara Elskamp, who served as the secretary/treasurer of the NZSO from 1967 to 1979; Nick Taptiklis, the Travis Research Fellow; and Jeff Upton, a PhD student at the University of Otago.
Cancer research had developed considerably since the establishment of the New Zealand Branch of the British Empire Cancer Campaign nearly four decades earlier in March 1929. The Branch, which changed its name to the Cancer Society of New Zealand Incorporated in 1963, aimed to create an association 'for the prevention and cure of Cancer and similar malignant diseases'.1
Under the auspices of the national body of the Cancer Society, three of the six Divisions established cancer research centres in their respective areas from 1929 to 1967. These included the Cancer Research Unit in the University of Otago Medical School in 1929, the Radiation Biology Laboratory in Christchurch in 1951 (which moved to Dunedin and came under the administration of the Otago-Southland Division two years later), the Auckland Cancer Research Laboratory in 1956, and the Cytogenetics Unit in Christchurch in 1961. Additionally, the Central Districts Division (established in 1963) funded research into malignancies in sheep at Massey University in Palmerston North from 1966.2
Minutes of the Inaugural Meeting of the New Zealand Society for Cancer Research, 28 June 1967, University of Otago Medical School.
Despite such growth in cancer research across the mid-twentieth century, there remained 'no suitable forum for the presentation of current research results and the exchange of technical and scientific information between our research workers'.3
Maarire and the other founding members hoped the Society would facilitate interaction between cancer researchers around the country and offset the 'isolation of the New Zealand workers situated at a distance from the main academic centres'.4
The members drafted a constitution, elected officers, and established an initial subscription fee of $4.
Despite the excitement generated at the first meeting, their first formal seminar did not take place until February 1969, nearly two years later.
The founding members' efforts to expand their society was initially 'inhibited' by tension with the Cancer Society of New Zealand Incorporated.5 Peter Fitzgerald became the first vice-president of the NZSO – then known as the 'Society for Cancer Research' – in 1967. He recalls their initial meeting 'raised great suspicion with the Cancer Society'.6 Such discomfort was partly based on the existence of the Cancer Research Trust, a fundraising organisation that Maarire had founded upon his return to New Zealand from the Chicago Medical School in 1966.
The Cancer Society had established cancer research centres across New Zealand and covered most of the expenses of the researchers who were also members of the NZSO. They were reportedly concerned that 'this new group might actively solicit funds then disperse these for various purposes', 'provide a platform for members to indulge in various semi-political activities' or use their new position to 'circumvent avowed policies or even directives of their employer'.7
Peter and Maarire met with leaders of the Otago-Southland Division of the Cancer Society to resolve these misunderstandings about their objectives. They reinforced their aim to establish a purely academic society and agreed that they would not compete for funding. Instead, they would seek financial support from the Cancer Society to hold the meetings.8
Auckland Cancer Research Laboratory, 1970s. ACSRC
Part of the original constitution the founding members drafted in consultation with the Society of Endocrinology and the Pathological Society.
The first official meeting of the NZSO took place in Murray's laboratory on Saturday 22 February 1969. Members formally accepted the conditions set out during the meeting with the Cancer Society, finalised the constitution, re-elected officers, and established a student membership fee of $1.9
The Society was also required to remove the word 'cancer' from their title. They opted for the term 'oncology' which was becoming increasingly used overseas. It was less common in New Zealand in the 1960s, and Maarire was reportedly informed the name change was not acceptable to the Cancer Society as 'there is no such word as "oncology"'.10 Maarire disagreed, and the organisation became the 'New Zealand Society for Oncology' in 1969. Yet, members continued to publicise their events as 'cancer conferences' in various programmes and correspondence over the next decade.
The inaugural scientific meeting included six presentations by researchers based in Dunedin and Christchurch. It also featured talks by Henry Rappaport from the University of Chicago and Leslie Foulds from the Chicago Medical School.
Dick Wilkins was completing his PhD in radiation biophysics at Wakari Hospital in Dunedin when he was 'hauled' into the first meeting in 1969. He explains:
The thing with the Oncology Society is until that came along there was no formal place we met … Everybody knew each other because there was such a small group of people but there was no formal scientific meeting of a cancer type nature.
Peter Fitzgerald agrees. At that time, all scientific meetings focused on 'plants and really on animals but there was nothing on humans at all'.11
The first two meetings laid the foundation for the Society that developed over the next five decades. From the outset, it had a focus on both clinical and scientific research, an aim to facilitate communication among cancer researchers, and an emphasis on high profile international speakers.
The founders were eager to develop the Society into a national organisation. Yet, the distance between the main cancer research centres, coupled with a lack of funding for travel, meant this was not an easy task.
Letter from C. M. Goodall to the Cancer Society of New Zealand Inc., 12 March 1969.
Proceedings of the New Zealand Society for Oncology, New Zealand Medical Journal 69. 445 (1969): 387-388.
1British Empire Cancer Campaign Society, Rules of the New Zealand Branch of the British Empire Cancer Campaign Society Incorporated (Wellington: Blundell Bros. 1929), p. 1.
2The 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 Cancer Society, 1983), p. 13.
3Letter from C. M. Goodall and Barbara Elskamp to the Interim Committee (no date), NZSO archives.
5Minutes of the 2nd Annual General Meeting, 25 February 1972, Hugh Adam Department of Cancer Research, University of Otago Medical School, NZSO archives.
6Interview with Peter Fitzgerald, Dick Wilkins, and Christine Morris, 5 March 2018.
7Letter from Bruce Cain letter to W. H. Isbister, 20 February 1979, NZSO archives.
8Interview with Peter Fitzgerald, Dick Wilkins, and Christine Morris.
9Minutes of the Inaugural Annual General Meeting, 22 February 1969, Hercus Building, University of Otago Medical School, NZSO archives.
10Letter from Maarire Goodall to Mike Berridge, NZSO archives.
11Interview with Peter Fitzgerald, Dick Wilkins, and Christine Morris.