A Daughter’s Efforts To Preserve Her Physician Father’s Extraordinary Legacy

By Barbara Hertz

In 1936, clinical research into the potential of nuclear medicine–a medical specialty involving the application of radioactive substances in the diagnosis and treatment of disease–was in its infancy. That year, endocrinologist Dr. Saul Hertz attended a lecture in which Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Dr. Karl Compton urged physicians to seek out applications of physics in medicine and biology. Intrigued and inspired by Dr. Compton’s call to action, Dr. Hertz posed a simple question to Dr. Compton: “Could iodine be made artificially radioactive?”

Thus the seeds were planted for research that culminated in one of the most profound and enduring of medical discoveries: the successful use of radioiodine in the treatment of Graves’ disease (hyperthyroidism) and as the first targeted cure for cancer, specifically thyroid cancer (because the thyroid absorbs iodine, the radioactivity is also absorbed, destroying the cancer cells while leaving all other cells in the body unharmed).

There’s no doubt that Dr. Hertz’s revolutionary work not only changed the treatment of thyroid disease forever and saved countess lives worldwide, but also paved the way for significant advancements in the nuclear medicine field. Sadly, Dr. Hertz died of a heart attack in 1950 at the age of 45. Here his youngest daughter, Barbara, shares her memories of her father, how she became aware of his historic achievements and what she is doing to preserve his extraordinary legacy.

What are your early memories of your dad?

The first memory I have of my dad is from a picture that hung on my bedroom wall. He had died suddenly of a heart attack when I was three. In the photo, he looked elegant in formal tails and happy next to my beautiful mom in her rented wedding gown. They stood by the fireplace in our Grove Street home in Brookline, a suburb of Boston. As a youngster, I would not have recognized the Phi Beta Kappa Key he wore that day. It was not until much later that I learned of its significance as well as his important contribution to medicine. I grew up hearing my dad had discovered radioactive iodine (RAI) as a treatment for a disease, but had little information beyond that.


Dr. Saul Hertz.

How did you come to learn about his contribution to medicine?

While cleaning out my childhood home I discovered boxes and boxes of my dad's papers that were safely stored in the attic. My mother had thrown out very little in the nearly 60 years she had lived there. What a treasure of correspondence, original journal drafts, newspaper articles and, to my amazement, the data charts of the very first series of patients treated with radioactive iodine!

Over time, and with the help of medical historians, archivists and prominent thyroid specialists, the story unfolded. I found the letter that MIT's President Compton sent responding to my dad's spontaneously asked seminal question posed in November of 1936. I came to appreciate that my father was the first and foremost person to develop the clinical data demonstrating the tracer qualities of RAI and its use in the treatment of thyroid diseases. I later came to understand the RAI is the first targeted cancer therapy and that it represents the gold standard, even today. The materials revealed his commitment to teaching, research and practice. He clearly envisioned an integration of the sciences and that a targeted approach to cancer treatment would go beyond thyroid cancer.

What have you done to share his work?

To begin with, the American Thyroid Association (ATA), as part of its 74th annual meeting in 2002, held a "Saul Hertz Meets the Professor Luncheon.” I wrote a short article for the ATA's newsletter highlighting my dad's background and pioneering work. I also attended the meeting and was able to meet many of the ATA leaders and members.

The next year marked the Endocrine Society's 85th Meeting in Philadelphia. I worked closely with Dr. Adolph Friedman, who had visited my dad in the 1940s in Boston during the early years of his research and was the first Washington, D.C. physician to use radioactive iodine. He headed the Endocrine Society's history project and had developed a presentation featuring my father’s patient data charts that was displayed on the exhibit floor at the meeting.

My mission became clear that my dad's story could and should be shared.

The next significant step was his induction in the National Museum of American Jewish History. He is currently featured in the museum’s multimedia "Only in America" Gallery.

The staff at Harvard Medical School Countway Library of Medicine has offered suggestions, contacts and support. This relationship led me to endocrinologist Dr. Lewis Braverman, then-editor of Endocrine Practice, the peer-reviewed journal for the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. He encouraged me to work with his staff in developing an historical vignette for the magazine, which was published in July 2010. His father-in-law had been at The Beth Israel Hospital (now Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center) when my dad was on staff there after World War II. The article reached Dr. Alvin Urles, who had been a young fellow under my dad's direction at Beth Israel. He contacted me when he was 89 years of age and related many medical details about my father’s work.

2012 was a benchmark year in Boston. It marked MIT's 150th year, Massachusetts General Hospital’s 200th year and 75 years since my father’s encounter with President Compton, which ultimately led to the building of MIT's cyclotron and the radioactive iodine research. An author who was writing the history of Massachusetts General Hospital came to Connecticut to talk with me. He was particularly interested in my dad's work and explained that he had been one of two practicing Jewish doctors at Massachusetts General in the 1930s. I later came to learn that when my dad arrived at MGH in 1931 that he was a Dalton Scholar in that Jewish doctors were not allowed on the staff at that time. There were quotas for Jewish students at Harvard Medical School when he graduated in 1929.

While attending the opening of MIT's 150th anniversary museum exhibit, I was introduced to then-MIT President Susan Hockfield. She immediately recognized my dad's work and spoke about his profound contribution to medicine and science. I then was invited to MIT’s 150th symposia, "Conquering Cancer through the Convergence of Science and Engineering,” held in March 2012 where American geneticist, molecular biologist and Nobel Prize winner Phillip Sharp spoke of dad’s work as MIT's first cancer treatment.

Harvard Medical School honored my dad and the 75 years since his RAI research began at Vanderbilt Hall, the very place where MIT's Dr. Compton had spoken. Significant correspondence, newspaper articles, two Journal of the American Medical Association articles that announced the effectiveness of the RAI treatment in hyperthyroid patients, photographs and more were displayed. Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates endocrine division chief and immediate past president of the American College of Endocrinology Dr. Jeffrey Garber and Dr. Braverman highlighted the history and my dad's legacy, with Dr. Braveman stating," We owe Saul Hertz a debt of gratitude."

This motivated me to consider how to pay that debt, and I began pursuing avenues to share my father’s story. My local newspaper, the Greenwich Time, had a frontpage story featuring my dad’s story on Father's Day. Additionally, National Public Radio broadcast a Father's Day tribute on its local Connecticut station. And the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging (SNMMI) exhibited at its annual conference this past June the materials presented at the Harvard Medical School 2012 reception. These efforts, while significant, have led to my desire to further acknowledge my father’s work with the establishment of a yearly award in honor of my father’s accomplishments.

Why did you contact the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists to honor Saul Hertz?

This Theodore Roosevelt quote made me think of all the members and support staff who are "...actually in the arena” for more than 70 years, along with countless future generations, who have carried or are carrying my dad's dream forward:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” --Theodore Roosevelt

To pay tribute to the hope, courage and determination of Saul Hertz and other medical pioneers, Ms. Hertz has established the "Dare Bravely" Award.
Award can be sent to:
Donald C. Jones Chief Executive Officer American College of Endocrinology 245 Riverside Avenue - Suite 200 Jacksonville, FL 32202