Alfred S. Ketcham, MD, 92, former Chief of Surgical Oncology at the University of Miami and previous Chief of Surgery at the National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, MD, passed away peacefully July 17, 2017 in Coral Gables, Florida. Alfred Ketcham is one of the enviable few who can look at his life choices with pride untempered by regret. From his humble beginnings in a village farmhouse, he chose a medical career and chartered a course that eventually brought him to the top of his surgical specialty. His accomplishments have made him one of the most respected surgical oncologists in the United States. During his career, he became one of this country’s most respected surgical oncologists.
Alfred Ketcham was born on October 7, 1924, in Newark, New York, to hard-working parents. He helped his father deliver milk on a horse-drawn wagon, while his mother taught school in a one-room schoolhouse. Alfred learned early to surmount adversity: at age 16, he was stricken with polio and forced to spend his senior year of high school in the hospital. It was perhaps this inside view of our health care system that helped him decide on a career in medicine—but not before he had recovered his physical stamina with a stint with the Great Lakes Merchant Marine and a brief career as an Adirondack lumberjack.
Dr. Ketcham’s higher education began with a bachelor’s degree in science from Hobart College in 1945. He received his medical degree from the University of Rochester in 1949, a training period that in 1946 was pleasantly interrupted by his marriage to Elsie Jane Chase, his childhood sweetheart. After a year-long internship at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Alfred moved his young family to the West Coast, where he completed surgical residency training in San Francisco and Seattle, at United States Public Health Service hospitals. After his residency, he spent two years working on a Indian reservation in Talihina, Oklahoma, an experience that honed his broad-based surgical skills to a level not commonly found among today’s specialists. Quite simply, Dr. Ketcham became an incredible surgeon, a man who could successfully perform almost any type of operative procedure, from trauma surgery to metastasectomy.
But because Alfred Ketcham was given a scientist’s mind as well as surgeon’s hands, his professional career soon pulled him back to the East Coast and the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, where in 1957 he assumed a position as Senior Investigator of the Surgery Branch. His early research used a murine model to examine induced and spontaneous tumor metastasis; his findings improved our understanding of the metastatic process, especially site-specific metastasis. In the operating room, he demonstrated techniques to minimize complications of resection for tumors of the paranasal sinuses; his pioneering work on skull-base surgery set the standard for craniofacial resection of malignant tumors of the anterior cranial fossa. He was the first to show improved survival for patients with malignant tumors of the anterior cranial fossa. He was the first to show improved survival for patients with malignant lesions of the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses extending to the skull base. A born educator and facilitator, Ketcham was generous with his time and knowledge; he encouraged his staff to develop and test their ideas. And despite the financial constraints imposed by a government salary and a growing family of six children, he was a gracious and frequent host who opened his home for social gatherings much enjoyed by his colleagues and staff members at the Surgery Branch.
By 1962, Dr. Ketcham had been appointed Chief of the Surgery Branch at NCI. In 1971, he was named Clinical Director and Associate Director for Clinical Research Division of Cancer Biology and Diagnosis at NCI. Despite his increasing administrative duties, he found time to publish now-classic surgical papers on pelvic exenteration for carcinoma of the uterine cervix.
In NCI’s laboratories, some initial cancer research was investigated and led by Ketcham, for example, he spearheaded an investigation of the immunologic factors in human sarcomas and melanomas. His use of immunofluorescent techniques to demonstrate antibodies against human malignant melanoma showed that tumor antigens can be immunogenic in the autologous host.
In 1974, Alfred Ketcham accepted the University of Miami’s invitation to serve as Sylvester Professor of Oncology and Chief of the Division of Surgical Oncology. This move heralded two extremely productive decades of clinical research and administrative accomplishments. Dr. Ketcham served as president of the American Radium Society, the Society of Head and Neck Surgeons, the Society of Surgical Oncology, and the Society of Pelvic Surgeons. He was governor of the American College of Surgeons for six years, and president of the board of governors of the American Federation of Clinical Oncology Societies. Dr. Ketcham has received the Alpha Omega Alpha National Honor Medical Society award, the U.S. Public Health Service Meritorious Service Medal, and an honorary doctor of science degree from Hobart College. Among his keynote invited lectures are the Arthur D. Beven lecture, the Hayes Martin lecture of the Society of Head and Neck Surgeons, and the Janeway lecture of the American Radium Society.
Although Dr. Ketcham retired in 1995, his name remains as a pioneer in surgical science and academic surgical oncology. His surgical expertise and research acumen are documented by the more than three-hundred peer-reviewed publications that bear his name. His skill as an educator is evidenced by a long list of top surgical oncologists throughout the country whom he has mentored during his career. Nor has Dr. Ketcham’s influence been limited to the United States: for nearly twenty years, Dr. Ketcham served an international appointment as a consultant in oncology and as a liaison medical school representative for the Department of State, including territory of the Virgin Islands and Central and South America.
Ketcham’s abilities as a surgeon, educator, and administrator makes him among the few enviable achievers whose life decisions have yielded consistent success on personal and professional levels. He has six children, ten grandchildren, eleven great-grandchildren and countless colleagues who admire and respect his achievements and ideals. His career after twenty-one years remains a model for aspiring academic surgeons.
Memorial service at 4pm on Sunday, 7/23 at Stanfill Funeral Home.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to:
Sodus Bay Historical Society, 7606 North Ontario Street, Sodus Point, NY 14555,
University of Miami School of Medicine or to the National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, MD.