The following narrative describes over 100 years of AACR history. From the simple beginning of a few scientists gathering to share information to the multifaceted organization that exists today, the growth of the AACR reflects the increasing complexity of our understanding of over 200 diseases we now know as cancer.
Our history is divided into eras, and the accompanying timeline gives the details of first events and links to supporting information, including lists of officers, directors, award winners, and others. No history could possibly cite all of the many people worldwide who have contributed to the success of the AACR in its vital mission. This history is dedicated to the tireless men and women who work to conquer cancer.
In 2017, the AACR celebrated 110 years of supporting lifesaving cancer research. At the AACR Annual Meeting 2017, a special display and publication titled "Landmarks in Cancer Research" commemorated the seminal discoveries and events that took place over the past 110 years. In addition, the following video was presented during the Opening Ceremony of the AACR Annual Meeting 2017:
The American Association for Cancer Research was founded in 1907 at a propitious time. European scientific advances in the late 19th century had set the stage for progress against cancer, a disease that had long been considered hopeless. These advances included the discovery of x-rays and radium; the notion that because chemotherapy could treat tuberculosis and syphilis, it might be effective in other diseases; the development of cellular pathology techniques such as freezing, sectioning, and staining; and tumor transplantation in animals. In the United States, experimental materials were becoming increasingly available, the first government-supported facility for cancer research had been opened in Buffalo, and endowment funds were being set up exclusively for furthering cancer research.
All of the AACR founders were men (four surgeons, five pathologists, and two biochemists; below)- although women were presenters at scientific meetings early in the organization's history, a rarity for the times. At the turn of the century many scientists believed that the cure for cancer was imminent. The newspapers were filled with claims of causes and cures that were quickly disproven, another reason the founders wanted to focus on disseminating the best research.
The 34 AACR charter members were primarily MDs, with only two PhDs, and the dominant specialty was pathology, a reflection of how researchers were classified. The charter group included famous physicians and surgeons such as William Councilman, William Halstead, Roswell Park, J. Collins Warren, and William Welch. Martha Tracy, the first woman member, joined in 1908.
Reverence for European science was so strong among the AACR founders that their first name for the new organization did not include the word American. The intent was to become part of the German Central Committee for Cancer Investigation. World War I curtailed such an affiliation, and American science developed so rapidly thereafter that international interests were not addressed formally until 1958, when scientists outside the Americas were first allowed to join the AACR as Corresponding Members.
The AACR charter cited a single purpose: "to further the investigation and spread the knowledge of cancer." For its first decade, the AACR carried out this mission solely through an annual meeting. In 1916, the AACR's first publication, The Journal of Cancer Research, was launched; it was the first cancer journal to be published in English. In 1931, it was replaced by The American Journal of Cancer. Many seminal papers in early cancer research were published in these two journals.
Member dues were very low, and there was no registration fee for the Annual Meeting. AACR council members and officers were appointed, not elected, and there was no administration other than what the AACR's secretary and treasurer provided. In spite of the lack of a formal management structure, the Annual Meeting, the journal, and the membership grew over time. Activities in the AACR's first four decades remained focused solely on one meeting and one journal, however. Initiatives involving education and advocacy for research funding were proposed, but the AACR council voted against expanding the mission, citing limited resources and lack of interest among the members.
By 1940, the AACR was large enough to incorporate. New bylaws called for electing board members at the business meeting of members held during the Annual Meeting (a practice that was continued until mailed ballots were introduced in 1976).
The journal Cancer Research replaced The American Journal of Cancer in 1941. No annual meetings were held in 1943-1945, and the number of papers submitted to the journal decreased owing to the war effort; however, research conducted to support the war had the effect of jump-starting biomedical advances in the post-war period. The 1950s saw the rise of experimental animal models, cancer chemotherapy, clinical trials, and the rapid growth of pharmaceutical companies. Cancer Research flourished editorially, reflecting these scientific advances.
To conserve resources, AACR Annual Meetings were held in conjunction with meetings of other societies, primarily those of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). Grants from funding organizations, including the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society, supported the publication of Cancer Research.
In 1952, Hugh J. Creech (right) became the first AACR Secretary-Treasurer (Dr. Creech served until 1977). An expanded mission statement issued in 1955 noted that the purpose of the AACR was "to bring together active investigators of the cancer problem for presentation and discussion of new or significant observations; and to foster research in cancer and other phenomena of growth."