The College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences lost a beloved faculty member on Nov. 17, 2006. Dr. Edward Gillette passed away at home, surrounded by his family, following a 10-year battle with cancer. Below is an article that appeared earlier this year in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences’ Emitter Magazine. In it, Dr. Gillette recounts his life and his work, and the legacy he leaves behind.
Dr. Gillette Proud of Lasting Legacy in Comparative Oncology, Veterinary Radiology
As he walks through the bustling halls of the Flint Animal Cancer Center at Colorado State University, Dr. Ed Gillette can’t help but smile. He is surrounded by faculty who were once his graduate students, by colleagues who have worked with him for almost 30 years, by staff members who dote on him and by memories of a good life built on dedication, intelligence, compassion and a Western pioneering spirit.
Dr. Gillette, who recently retired from the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences, has been to numerous soirees thrown in his honor since his retirement, including a ceremony to rename the radiology suite at the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital the “Edward L. Gillette Radiology Suite.” At each event, surrounded by familiar faces from the past and present, he reflects on the legacy he leaves behind and the future he has helped to shape and build.
When he began his career, he was the only full-time veterinary radiation oncologist in the world, but it was through happenstance and chance meetings that Dr. Gillette came to be known as the father of this specialty. For Dr. Gillette, it began in junior high school when his home room teacher suggested career counseling.
“I took the tests and they showed I had abilities in medicine,” said Dr. Gillette. “I was enrolled in a vocational agriculture course, so my teacher said you should be a veterinarian and I said OK. That became my goal and I never really looked at anything else. I graduated from the veterinary school at Kansas State University.”
There was only one problem, though. After graduation, Dr. Gillette decided that he didn’t really want to be a veterinarian. But, he had a commitment to the Veterinary Corps and owed the Army two years. Little did he know that it was while in the Army that he would find his life’s calling.
“While I was serving, I went to a workshop on the radiation protection aspects of nuclear weapons and I was intrigued,” said Dr. Gillette. “I became very interested in radiation biology and decided to pursue studies in radiology. CSU’s program was just getting started, so I decided to go to Michigan which, unfortunately, closed its program after only a month. At the time, Bill Lunn used a fair amount of influence with Bill Carlson to get me a job as an instructor in the Department of Medicine so I came to CSU in 1959 and got my start.”
Dr. Gillette completed his master’s degree in radiology in the Department of Medicine, and then was faced with another decision. There wasn’t a lot of demand for veterinary radiologists, and staying with a veterinary school seemed to be the only realistic option. Dr. Carlson needed help, so Dr. Gillette made the decision to stay at CSU and work on his PhD which he received in physiology (there wasn’t a radiology PhD program yet).
“I was still kind of floundering, radiology was a new and interesting field but doing research in veterinary radiology was a challenge,” said Dr. Gillette. “I had to develop my research program from scratch. In 1966, Dr. Herman Suit, who was the chief of experimental radiation therapy at M.D. Anderson in Houston, came for a visit and watched me treat a tumor on a dog. He was very excited about the possibilities of using spontaneously occurring tumors in dogs as a model for human cancer, and that gave me the idea for comparative oncology.”
During a sabbatical in Texas, Dr. Suit and Dr. Rod Withers became Dr. Gillette’s mentors, teaching him about research, suggesting research directions, and acting as consultants. Dr. Gillette notes that the two men, who became internationally known in the field of radiation oncology, were the major reason for his success.
“In 1969, I came back to Colorado and began writing grants like mad,” said Dr. Gillette. “I was successful with applications to private foundations as well as the National Institutes of Health. We had projects and support for graduate students, and we laid the foundation for all that was to come. In 1972, we received a grant from the National Cancer Institute to study the late effects of radiation, a grant which lasted for 25 years.”
In 1974, the group received an NIH Program Project Grant and Dr. Gillette was named as Director of Comparative Oncology. Once the program found its footing, additional faculty came on board to shore up the base, including Drs. Stephen Withrow and Dennis Macy. Highlights for Dr. Gillette included the inclusion of a radiation suite at the new Veterinary Teaching Hospital, completed in 1979. The department also was able to buy an accelerator, which was commissioned in 1981, allowing the research group to compete for additional funding from the NIH and NCI.
“My goal has always been to improve cancer treatment in humans, and animals are good models for humans,” said Dr. Gillette. “I’m proud to say that over the years we were able to improve treatment pretty dramatically with the NIH grants. Our experiments could determine normal tissue tolerance in dogs, and we could extrapolate that to human studies. The great part is we not only have helped advance cancer treatment in humans, but we formed the basis for the Animal Cancer Center and greatly advanced the cancer care in companion animals which had been minimal before veterinary radiation oncology came on the scene.”
For Dr. Gillette, another facet of his career of which he is particularly proud is the people he influenced during his years at Colorado State University.
“Now, there are approximately 60 veterinary radiation oncologists in the country because I was the first one,” said Dr. Gillette. “In the 1990s, there was a specialty developed in medical oncology within the Veterinary College of Internal Medicine which Steve, Dennis and I grandfathered. In the American College of Veterinary Radiology there is now a sub-specialty, veterinary oncology. My own students have had wonderful accomplishments and I really enjoy when people come up and talk to me about the influence I had in their lives and careers. That is really a tangible result of what we’ve done over all these years.”
Not one to leave quietly, Dr. Gillette has most recently proved instrumental in helping the Veterinary Diagnostic Imaging Group in its quest to purchase a new accelerator, the Varion Trilogy, the most advanced accelerator in the world, for use in research and training programs. Though funds must still be appropriated for the purchase, Dr. Gillette is sure that the new accelerator will be a crowning achievement for his years at CSU.
“When you look at how we started these programs from nothing, to where we are at today, to the number of good people working here, the incredible advances we’ve made in technology and knowledge, I’m just very proud,” said Dr. Gillette. “I wish I could continue my work but, honestly, I can’t understand the language anymore – that’s how far we’ve come.”
(A fund has been created to honor Dr. Gillette’s life work and his contributions to the field of radiological health sciences. Donations can be made to the Colorado State University Foundation in memory of Dr. Gillette. For additional information, visit the College’s development home page at www.cvmbs.colostate.edu/development/)