Altman, Lawrence K. "Fall of a Man Pivotal in Breast Cancer Research," New York Times, 4
April 1994, p. B10.
The Times devotes almost an entire page to a discussion of Dr. Bernard Fisher and his recent
ouster from his position as principal investigator of the Breast and Bowel studies. Essentially, it
is suggested that the "forceful personality" of Bernard Fisher made it possible for him to organize
surgeons into teams doing this work and, simultaneously, that same personality "contributed to
Many of Dr. Fisher's peers are reported "shocked" by what happened. "‘He single-handedly has
done more to change our perception of breast cancer than any other single individual in the
world...'" one of his supporters is quoted as saying.
It is reported here that Fisher knew of the false data of Roger Poisson of Montreal for the past six
months. Previous reports suggest he knew of the falsifications much earlier. The problem is that
he "delayed" reporting the falsifications and publishing his reanalysis of the overall data - this
time without the questionable reports of Poisson.
It is also reported that Bernard Fisher has brought $119 million into Pittsburgh since 1953. His
work is financing 31 studies now.
The Times has tried to interview Dr. Fisher but Fisher has declined and is reported to be saving
his comments for his testimony before Congressman John Dingell later this month.
Fisher's contributions to surgery include his suggestion, and demonstration (published in 1985)
that lumpectomy is as effective as radical mastectomy in treating breast cancer. Lumpectomy is a
much less mutilating procedure than is the radical mastectomy. When he first proposed the
lumpectomy, Fisher was opposed by the medical establishment which had, for years, used
Halsted's recommended mastectomy. Fisher then organized a major study which demonstrated
the effectiveness of his procedure. "‘It was an incredibly important contribution,'" said Dr.
Barbara Smith, a breast cancer expert at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. She
added, "For somebody to hold that organization together, you have to have a strong personality
be a driving person.'"
The strong personality that was crucial to his success also seems to have played a role in his
sudden fall. Colleagues describe him as self-confident with a manner that is often perceived as
arrogant and abrasive. Dr. Samuel Hellman, an expert in radiation and cancer at the University of
Chicago, spoke of Dr. Fisher as "outspoken, very clear, strong in his views and clearly not to be
pushed around by the vicissitudes of smaller issues, a guy with a great deal of character and
forcefulness of being right." Dr. Hellman said he "did not agree with a lot of the things Bernie
says, but I admire him tremendously."
He does not take advice easily and "The refusal to take advice or heed instructions from his
bureaucratic masters may have played a large role in the sudden debacle which now threatens to
engulf his center."
Pittsburgh must now deal with the fallout of all this. Dr. Ronald Herberman has been appointed
as temporary principal investigator. A number of scientists and advocates for breast cancer
patients are criticized the NCI for penalizing Dr. Fisher "too harshly." It is also suggested that
both NCI as Dr. Fisher made mistakes in all of this.