Sanford-Burnham News Archive

Remembering William H. Fishman, President Emeritus and Founder of The Burnham Institute, 1914-2001

LA JOLLA, Calif. , January 25, 2011

Dr. William H. Fishman, cancer researcher and founding President and CEO of The Burnham Institute, died on January 25, 2001.

Born in Winnepeg, Canada, Dr. Fishman graduated from the University of Saskatchewan in 1935. He earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Toronto in 1939. He conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Edinburgh (1940) and Cornell University Medical School (1941). His academic career began with appointments at Bowman-Gray School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (Instructor, 1941-1943; Assistant Professor, 1943-1948). At Bowman-Gray, Dr. Fishman aided America's wartime effort by helping train doctors for the military on an accelerated program, which compressed four years of medical school into three. He became a U.S. citizen during this time. He continued his career at University of Chicago with joint appointments as Research Associate in Biochemistry and Assistant Professor in Department of Surgery (Billings Hospital), 1945-1948. He was a faculty member at Tufts University, 1948-1976 and matriculated to Professor of Pathology. Dr. Fishman established and served as the first director of Tufts Cancer Research Center, the first regional cancer center sanctioned under the National Cancer Act signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1971.

At the University of Chicago, Dr. Fishman and Dr. John Anlyn defined the relationship between high blood levels of a particular enzyme, beta-glucuronidase, and malignant tumor growth. The late William J. McGill, President Emeritus of Columbia University wrote that, "this discovery changed biochemistry fundamentally because it was among the earliest reports of an enzyme as a tumor marker...biochemistry was seen increasingly as a crucial tool for cancer study."

At Tufts University, Dr. Fishman and colleagues developed enzyme assays detecting a tumor marker for prostate cancer, which better informed surgeons about a tumor's progression and eliminated unnecessary surgery.

In 1974, Dr. Fishman made the shocking discovery that a pregnancy protein could be detected in adult human tumor tissue. He found placental alkaline phosphatase, an enzyme normally expressed during the first trimester, in a man's lung tumor. The Regan isoenzyme, named for the patient donor, confirmed for Dr. Fishman that cancer development (oncology) was inextricably linked with developmental biology. His work, along with that of others, defined a new field in cancer research. "Oncodevelopmental biology" combined the study of cancer development with the development of normal cells. Dr. Fishman became a founding member of the International Society for Oncodevelopmental Biology and Medicine (ISOBM).

Dr. Fishman, then in his early '60's, well funded, a prominent player in a new era of cancer biology, faced the prospect of age-mandated retirement in effect at Tufts University.

With support from the Kroc Foundation, Dr. Fishman organized an ISOBM Conference in San Diego. The region seemed a most likely place to start an independent lab. A research environment including the Salk Institute, University of California, and the Scripps Research Institute, would provide a critical mass of research talent and offer unusual opportunities for collaboration. And the communities of San Diego and La Jolla were most supportive.

In 1976, Dr. Fishman, together with his partner and wife Lillian Fishman co-founded the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation with the transfer of a single grant. Under his direction, the Institute first earned the prestigious "cancer center" designation from the National Cancer Institute in 1981. Known today as The Burnham Institute (the name changed from LJCRF in 1996), the organization has grown to a faculty of 46 and staff of 480 conducting research on a budget of $41 million annually.

One of Dr. Fishman's early faculty recruits was Dr. Erkki Ruoslahti, who today serves the Institute as President and CEO. Said Dr. Ruoslahti, "Bill Fishman showed tremendous courage and foresight when he decided to start with very small resources what became the Burnham Institute. The flexible, science-oriented structure he devised for the Institute has endured to this date, and the scientific stature he dreamed of is now a reality. We at the Burnham Institute are all grateful to Bill for the opportunity to build this Institute to prominence and do our research work here."

Dr. Fishman never retired. He served the Burnham Institute as President Emeritus and Trustee until his death. In 1995, he published LA JOLLA CANCER RESEARCH FOUNDATION: The Miracle on Torrey Pines Mesa. He built community ties wherever he worked, mentoring postdoctoral fellows, and reaching beyond the laboratory by organizing extracurricular science activities when his children were of school age. He was a member of Congregation Beth El in La Jolla for the past 25 years.

Dr. Fishman received many honors throughout his career. He was elected to honorary membership in the International Society for Clinical Enzymology. He served as President of the Histochemical Society in 1983. He received an honorary M.D. degree from University of Umeå, Sweden in 1983. In 1994, he received the Award from the International Society for Oncodevelopmental Biology and Medicine. Dr. Fishman was a member in good standing of 19 professional organizations. He published over 300 articles and was cited frequently by peer researchers.

Dr. Fishman is survived by his wife Lillian Waterman Fishman, to whom he was married 61 years, daughter Nina Fishman (San Diego), sons Joel (Jerusalem, Israel) and Daniel (Phoenix, AZ), three grandchildren, a brother, Saul Fishman (Walnut Creek, CA) and sister, Isabel Aarons (Tampa, FL).

About Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute

Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute is dedicated to discovering the fundamental molecular causes of disease and devising the innovative therapies of tomorrow. Sanford-Burnham takes a collaborative approach to medical research with major programs in cancer, neurodegeneration and stem cells, diabetes, and infectious, inflammatory, and childhood diseases. The Institute is recognized for its National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center and expertise in drug discovery technologies. Sanford-Burnham is a nonprofit, independent institute that employs more than 1,000 scientists and staff in San Diego (La Jolla), Calif., and Orlando (Lake Nona), Fla. For more information, visit us at

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