Dr. Anna Meadows: Survivorship Studies Pioneer for Children with Cancer
The first to note the loss of cognitive function in children treated with radiation to the brain
Anna Taback Meadows had hands-on experience in caring for sick children long before she became a pediatric oncologist.
Dr. Meadows was in her 30s and the mother of three children when she started medical school.
“When I was raising children, I was always interested in medicine,” she says. “When their kids had a problem, other moms would call me.”
She had thought about becoming a doctor when she was in college. A bad grade in chemistry temporarily derailed that ambition, so she pursued another interest, becoming a psychologist.
Dr. Meadows met her first husband, also a psychologist, at the counseling center at New York University. They moved to Ohio, where her husband was a professor at Lake Erie College, a small liberal arts school.
She recalls meeting Dr. Benjamin Spock, the renowned pediatrician, as her husband was showing him around campus.
“I casually asked if there was a possibility of going to medical school,” Dr. Meadows recalls. “He said, why not? He was very encouraging.”
Her rejection letter from Harvard chastised the young mother.
“It said: ‘You should stay home and take care of your children because you would be taking the place of a man who would have a more distinguished career,’” she recalls.
Dr. Meadows proved them wrong. As a pediatric oncologist, she led the way for survivorship studies of children with cancer during her 40-year career at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). She was also a prominent figure in the national clinical trials for treatment of children with leukemia, lymphoma and retinoblastoma.
She started out on that road by studying medicine in Brussels for a year. Then the family moved to Philadelphia, where Dr. Meadows went to Women’s Medical College, now Drexel University College of Medicine, and her husband worked at Temple University.
In a woman’s medical school, Dr. Meadows was not the odd man out. Three of her classmates also were married. The class included three older women, two of whom were nuns.
Maintaining a work-life balance required live-in help, an accommodating spouse and teaching children to do their own laundry.
“I did all the cooking for four years in medical school, three years of residency, and my fellowships,” she recalls. “But after we got up from the table, the children cleared the dishes and I went to study.”
But after she started practicing medicine, the dynamic of the marriage changed. Dr. Meadows and her husband drifted apart and eventually divorced.
The Children's Champion
Dr. Meadows accepted a fellowship at CHOP in 1972, encouraged by Dr. Lawrence Naiman, her mentor at St. Christopher’s Hospital. In 1974, she became one of the first physicians to take the board exam in pediatric hematology-oncology.
Part of the treatment for children with leukemia in the 1970s was to irradiate the brain. Through her work, Dr. Meadows learned that while the treatment was saving lives, children suffered other health problems.
“I was the first to point out the loss of cognitive function in children who were treated for leukemia with radiation to the brain,” she says. “Radiation oncologists from all over the country sent me poison pen letters.”
Their criticism did not deter her. Dr. Meadows went on to lead what ultimately became a 13- institution consortium studying the effects of treatment for cancer in childhood.
“By the time this happened I was over 40,” she says. “Part of the reason I was able to stand up to this sort of criticism is that I was older.”
Dr. Meadows’ second husband was Dr. Alfred Knudson, the internationally acclaimed geneticist who developed the theory that cancer mutations require “two hits.”
Dr. Knudson had treated children with leukemia early in his career. The two physicians shared a fulfilling 40-year marriage rooted in mutual interests and abiding respect until his death in 2016.
“I fell in love with his paper before I fell in love with him,” she says.
Fifty years after graduating medical school, she received Drexel’s Lifetime Achievement Award. It’s one of dozens of accolades she has received throughout a long and fruitful career.
“I don’t regret anything that I did,” she says. “And I have no more room on my walls.”
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