A tribute to Odile Schweisguth, MD

A tribute to Odile Schweisguth, MD
A tribute to Odile Schweisguth, MD
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Transcript of A tribute to Odile Schweisguth, MD

  • Med Pediatr Oncol 2003;41:415416

    PERSPECTIVEA Tribute to Odile Schweisguth, MD


    In this perspective, we honor Dr. Odile Schweisguth ina very personal way, that goes beyond the Silhouette andthe obituary note that have already appeared in MPO (MedPediatr Oncol 2000 Jan; 34:5960; Ibid.2001;38,fmiii).

    Odile Schweisguth had a profound influence on thedevelopment of pediatric oncology around the world. Shewas a leader in the field from its beginning, and as a womanpioneer influenced the careers of many young women. Oneof her many achievements was that she became the firstwoman to become Chef de Service in the world-renowned Institut Gustave Roussy in Villejuif.

    In reading the comments collected from three of thewomen who worked closely with her, one can feel thatDr. Schweisguth touched them as a woman and had a deepinfluence on their lives as well as their development asphysicians and childhood cancer specialists.

    The editors believe that these very personal reminis-cences of her colleagues1 provide a fitting tribute to her.

    Arty Coppes-Zantinga, MA*

    Francoise Flamant, MD

    I started working with Odile Schweisguth around theend of 1969. At that time, Odile still worked in pediatriccardiology, another one of the pioneer areas in those days.

    The only woman there, she impressed me with a great self-confidence and she fascinated me with her free spirit andenergy that she imparted to those she worked with.

    In 1969, she offered me a job that I decided to accept,mainly because I was attracted by her personality. BecauseOdile always communicated success, anything seemedpossible, I decided to quit my previous job and joinher team. I had so much to learn and her teaching wasstimulating. After a little while, I also realized that theatmosphere was relaxed and cordial, all because of Odile.

    She was an unusual Chef de Service because she didact not like her more dominant male counterparts. Shehad confidence in me from the first moment and putme in charge of a clinical research center very quickly.She coordinated the work, she was always on top of things,but gave me a free hand to conduct business.

    She had a very real motherly love for the children shetook care of and the fact that she was a woman, gave her avery warm relation with the families and staff members.

    She was a real fighter for what she thought was right andshe continually wanted to improve pediatric oncology. Sheattracted the attention of all the pediatricians, surgeons,and adult physicians by the way she took care of herpatients as a personable physician-scientist.

    She was extremely curious, always trying to learn andunderstand; being present at surgical interventions forexample. She made it a point to be aware of the progress inall the different areas of oncology, always wondering howthey were applicable to pediatric oncology.

    She understood very quickly that this rare disease couldonly be beaten in cooperation with all the internationalcenters, in particular the American units she had visited.She kept good relationships with them and started pre-paring the soil for the creation of SIOP, the Interna-tional Society of Pediatric Oncology. In Europe, the firstEuropean pediatric oncologists all molded themselves onher model; almost all of them trained at Villejuif beforeestablishing their own units. In France, several centersbecame linked to Villejuif.

    Odile was interested in the families of everyone on herteam, their children, and the difficulties they had, andalways tried to help them. All the pediatricians lovedher and no one ever called her Dr. Schweisguth, but

    1We are grateful to Dr. F. Flamant, Dr. M.F. Tournade, and

    Dr. C. Rodary for allowing MPO readers the privilege of sharing

    in their vivid personal memories of that remarkable woman, Odile

    Schweisguth, MD.

    *Correspondence to: Arty Coppes-Zantinga, Alberta Childrens

    Cancer Program, 1820 Richmond Road SW, Calgary, T2T 5C7,

    Alberta, Canada. E-mail: acoppesz@ucalgary.ca

    Received 12 December 2002; Accepted 24 March 2003

    2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.DOI 10.1002/mpo.10382

  • everyone called her tante (aunt) Odile. The followingepisode fully characterizes her. She found the adminis-trative meetings to be utterly necessary, but they also tookup her time. She arrived with her knitting and knitted whilediscussing business. This represented everything that wasOdile: total spiritual independence and a bit of provoca-tion, which only a woman could get away with.

    Marie France Tournade, MD

    I well recall my first interview with Odile as a student in1969. Odile had examined a child with apparent subcuta-neous metastases. Her compassion was real without show-ing distress, and with a kind of serenity that she knew howto share with parents, without hiding the truth. She alwaysanswered all questions posed to her. Even if at this timethere was no effective treatment, this compassionatebehavior created a profound admiration for her that I stillhave.

    Odile understood the positive effects of well-conductedclinical research and fought mediocrity. She always de-manded full and accurate descriptions of the clinical find-ings from her students and insisted on well-kept files. Shethoroughly detested the administrative duties and quicklyfound a staff member who actually liked them! She madepsychologists part of the team, and they became indis-pensable and helped personnel to work with the families.

    Her book on pediatric oncology was meant for allpediatricians, oncologists or not, and will certainly remaina basic book, even as progress continues into the future.

    Working with her, one was left with certain principles:the impossibility of progress in these rare diseases if notpart of a multidisciplinary multi-center effort. She pairedthe need for intellectual honesty, while never forgetting thebasic mission: the hands-on care of the patient and his/herfamily.

    Chantal Rodary, MD, PhD

    When I started to work at Villejuif with Dr. RobertFlamant in 1974 in epidemiology and statistics, he told meBecause you are a pediatrician, you will be the statisticalliaison of the pediatric service. Everyone told me I waslucky to work with Odile, because she was an extra-ordinary woman, very intelligent, and her service re-sembled a large family. Starting work on Odiles service,I soon understood that case presentations needed tobe brief. She hardly seemed to pay any attention to methe following weeks. During one staff meeting, sherebuked me sharply, almost like at school, because Italked to my neighbor! A large family, yes, but one neededto be accepted into it. I stayed in the background as muchas possible. Some months later, during a reunion withpediatricians from the whole of France, she presented aslide with survival curves and suddenly asked me toaddress the audience and explain what a LogRank test was.My response must have been good, because she con-

    gratulated me on such a clear explanation. That trial wasalmost an admission into the family; I was now part ofthem. She told me later that she detested mediocrity. AndI have had occasions to observe that.

    This was my first time working in a pediatric en-vironment run by a woman. The first thing that struck mewas that she saw everything. She did not see with only theeyes of a physician, but also of a mother, and of a groupleader capable of seeing that all the tasks are done anddone well, whether it be administration, preparation ofmeals, or house cleaning. I observed her while she wasinterrogating the cleaning lady on the behavior of a child.Later, she explained to us that the cleaning lady also had anessential role, because it was she who picked up the toysand consoled children after their parents left for the night.

    On her service, everyone had a role to play and every-one, after proof of his or her competence, was recognizedfor it. As far as I am concerned, I have never found myselfin a more favorable work-environment in the field oftherapeutic research. Odile understood that only con-trolled therapeutic trials would make it possible to havestudies of a scientific nature that could produce validresults. As such, she had an advantage over many adultoncologists, whom my statistician colleagues found somuch harder to convince. She pushed me quickly to attendthe SIOP conferences that were still small back then, notyet one hundred participants. The dynamic atmosphereof the conferences always had a positive influence on theenthusiasm of the pioneers. We met in the spirit of a com-mitment to deal with the challenges of testing new treat-ment protocols in the hope of a bigger number of cures.

    Moreover, Odile was saddened but not put off by thelimitsofexistingtreatments. Iwillalwaysrememberseeingher come out of a room where a child had just completed acourse of high dose radiotherapy for a brain tumor. And shesaid very sadly We have turned him into a vegetable. Sheencouraged her own students to re-evaluate constantlywhat they were doing, inviting them to think how this curewould affect the child as an adult and his/her place insociety. Save a child, of course yes, but not at any cost.

    I would like to end with a memory of the parties shegave in the countryside. When the weather was nice, Odilewould organize a reunion of all the personnel and theirchildren on her service as well as the consultants of otherservices. Everyone would be invited to a Schweisguthfamily property just outside Paris. To say that everyonehas to put his hand in the dough is not just an ex-pression, because Odile would be the first to put all herenergy in making the dough of a fougasse, a typicalpastry of the south west of France. It smelled wonderful asshe cooked it over the fire. There was a splendid atmos-phere, as the extended family of Odile celebrated in thegreat outdoors. I often think ba