Charlotte Friend: A Pioneer in Cancer Cell Biology

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charlotte friendThe story of Charlotte Friend is a true New York story.  Friend was a noted microbiologist who made important contributions to the study of cancer.  She was an advocate for women’s rights and worked hard to improve the position of women in science.

Charlotte Friend was born March 11, 1921 in New York City, a city she loved.  She received a Bachelor’s degree from Hunter College in 1944 and then entered the Navy, where she was assigned to help direct a hematology laboratory in California.  She left the Navy in 1946 and began graduate work in microbiology at Yale University.  By the time she received her doctorate in 1950, Dr. Friend already had a position in the laboratory of Dr. Alice Moore at the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York City. She stayed in New York for the rest of her life.

In 1956, Friend gave a paper at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in which she stated that she had discovered a virus that caused a leukemia-like disorder in newborn mice.  She was roundly criticized for bringing up what was considered to be the old canard of viruses causing cancer.  Only Peyton Rous, who had made a similar announcement years before, spoke in her defense.

But the tide of change on this issue was turning in the face of mounting evidence.  Dr. Friend had not been the only researcher whose work suggested this.  By the next year, Friend had published her work in the prestigious Journal of Experimental Medicine, with the careful editing of Dr. Rous.  She was also supported by Jacob Furth, who announced that he had studied Dr. Friend’s pathologic material and that leukemia truly had been found to result from the new virus, which became known as the Friend leukemia virus.

Friend spent the following years investigating different aspects of the virus, as did many other researchers.  She worked with various collaborators, often cooperating in international research efforts.  Dr. Friend loved to travel and formed many long-term friendships with colleagues in Europe.  Her sabbatical years (1963 and 1975) were spent in laboratories in Australia, Israel, France and Italy.  She also attended many international meetings, often being one of only a handful of women scientists there. Still, while clearly social, she also maintained a very small laboratory staff and did not take on many graduate students to work with her.

Dr. Friend was very active in scientific associations and in outside professional activities such as grant reviewing and serving on editorial boards and advisory councils.  In the 1970s, when many associations ‘discovered’ their female members in reaction to the women’s movement, Dr. Friend was asked to assume leadership roles in several important organizations including:  chairman of the Gordon Conference (1973); member of the Board of Directors (1973-76) and president (1976) of the American Association for Cancer Research; president of the Harvey Society (1978/79); and president of the New York Academy of Sciences (1978).

In 1966, Charlotte Friend left Sloan-Kettering to become the first Director of the Center for Experimental Cell Biology and a Professor at the still developing Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She was the first and only female full Professor in the School when the faculty was officially formed in 1966.  She also served as a Professor in the Mount Sinai Graduate School of Biological Sciences.  At Mount Sinai, she established her own laboratory, which in 1967 was endowed as the Mollie B. Roth Laboratory.  Peyton Rous was the speaker at the event.  Still, it was an unending struggle to find the funding to keep the lab well-staffed and well equipped, a situation that got steadily harder as federal funding began to shrink in the 1970s.

The decline in federal funds for basic research led Dr. Friend to write several protest letters to congressmen and others in power.  This was a tact that she often took when a subject that mattered to her was threatened.  She wrote about many things, including her support for Israel, her opposition to anti-abortion measures, and in defense of women’s rights.

In 1971, Dr. Friend published another landmark paper, this one titled “Hemoglobin synthesis in murine virus-induced leukemic cells in vitro:  Stimulation of erythroid differentiation by dimethyl sulfoxide.”  The co-authors were William Scher, J. G. Holland and Toru Sato.  This paper described research on leukemia cells that had been made to differentiate, or take another step in the maturation process to become erythroid cells, thus stopping their cancer-like multiplication.  This work pointed to a whole new area of cancer treatment:  If instead of attacking cancer cells with toxic drugs, cancer cells could be targeted and made to mature, patients would be spared painful, sometimes deadly, and often ineffectual treatments.  Research continues today in this field.

In all, Dr. Friend published 163 papers, 70 of which she wrote by herself or with one other author, a rare feat in modern biomedical science.  Although diagnosed with lymphoma on her 60th birthday in 1981, she told few of her illness.  She continued to go about her work with all the energy she had, writing grants, serving on committees, and working in the lab.  Charlotte Friend died in January 1987.

In 1988, the Friend Papers were donated to the Mount Sinai Archives by Dr. Friend’s family. The finding aid for the collection is here:  For more information about Dr. Friend, contact the Mount Sinai Archives, a division of Academic Informatics &Technology of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Photo from the Mount Sinai Archives.

Barbara J. Niss is the Director of Archives & Records Management at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She has a Master’s degree in History of New York University.

This essay is part of The New York History Blog’s project to highlight the history of women in New York State for Women’s History Month. Have a story to contribute? Find out how.


One thought on “Charlotte Friend: A Pioneer in Cancer Cell Biology

  1. Prof Premraj Pushpakaran

    Prof Premraj Pushpakaran writes — 2017 marks bicentennial year of The New York Academy of Sciences!!!


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