Malcolm Bagshaw, pioneer in developing radiation therapies for cancer, dies at 86

Malcolm Bagshaw

Malcolm Bagshaw

Malcolm Bagshaw, MD, one of the world’s foremost experts in radiation therapy, most notably in developing new applications of radiation therapy for prostate cancer, and former chair of the departments of radiology and radiation oncology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, died Sept 18 at home in Palo Alto after an extended illness. He was 86.

A memorial will be held at 4 p.m. Oct. 10 in the Stanford Memorial Church with a reception following at the Arrillaga Alumni Center.

Known for his “can-do” attitude and far-reaching talents for innovation, research, teaching and patient care, Bagshaw inspired loyalty from those who worked with him and drew together a close department that both worked hard and played hard. When he wasn’t researching new methods of saving lives from cancer, he might be found on a bicycle ride to the coast with his Stanford residents or soaring over California in his glider.

Bagshaw had a knack for building, and his talents extended outside the research laboratory into the photography darkroom that he built at home, his homemade guitar and even an ultralight airplane that he built in his living room.

“He could do everything,” said Sarah Donaldson, MD, a professor of radiation oncology who worked with Bagshaw from the time she was a resident in the early 1970s. “Anybody who had a problem would go to Malcolm. He could help you figure out the answer. He was very innovative and was good at thinking outside of the box.”

With his wife of nearly 50 years by his side, Muriel Bagshaw, MD, who also worked as a Stanford pediatrician for many years, the Bagshaws often opened their campus home for department parties and events. Muriel was one of a handful of women to graduate from medical school in the early 1950s. She died in 1998, shortly before the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary. They raised three children together.

“It was like his whole life was open to everyone,” said Donaldson, who is also the Catharine and Howard Avery Professor at the medical school.

Born June 24, 1925, in Adrian, Mich., Bagshaw joined the Navy out of high school, applying for a military program that set him on the track to become a physician. He attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and then graduated from Yale University School of Medicine in 1950.

He completed his residency in radiology at the University of Michigan and joined Stanford in 1956. He was appointed head of the Division of Radiation Therapy in 1960 and became chair of the Department of Radiology in 1972, succeeding Henry Kaplan, MD. When the department separated into two distinct departments — radiology and radiation oncology — Bagshaw continued as chair of the latter.

The field of radiation oncology, formerly known as radiation therapy, was both a new and quickly growing field at the time Bagshaw began his medical career. He joined Kaplan in pioneering the medical use of high-energy radiation as produced by a medical linear accelerator in the treatment of a variety of cancers, including head and neck cancer; pediatric tumors, including retinoblastoma; gynecological cancer; and prostate cancer. Fifty years and 40 million patients later, medical linear accelerators have become the backbone of radiation therapy for cancer worldwide. Roughly half of all cancer patients receive radiation therapy, primarily from the radiation beams generated by a linear accelerator.

“Where Malcolm really excelled was in his introduction of radiation therapy for prostate cancer,” said Richard Hoppe, MD, professor of radiation oncology. Hoppe was appointed chair of the department when Bagshaw retired in 1992 and assumed the Henry S. Kaplan-Harry Lebeson Professorship in Cancer Biology. (Hoppe recently stepped down from the position of chair.)

“With the development of the linear accelerator, more deeply situated organs like the prostate could be treated by external beam radiation for the first time,” Hoppe said. “He became the world’s expert in utilizing radiation for treating prostate cancer and many followed. He developed techniques to more closely focus the radiation in the area of interest. He was a visionary in the field of radiation therapy.”

Bagshaw received the 1996 Charles F. Kettering Prize, awarded by the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation, for his instrumental role in improving prostate cancer treatment. Bagshaw and collaborators showed that high-dose, small-field radiation could allow patients to undergo radiation treatment without the need for surgery. Radiation therapy also helped preserve sexual potency and reduced the incidence of incontinence.

Radiotherapy techniques for localized prostate cancer devised by Bagshaw have become a standard of care. He published more than 150 papers on prostate cancer alone.

Hoppe described Bagshaw as a mentor who held high standards and was understanding and kind to staff and faculty alike.

“He always had a smile on his face, he was a fun guy to be around,” Hoppe said. Donaldson described him as an infectious teacher, who was a role model to countless numbers of students and trainees, who entered the field of radiation oncology largely because of Bagshaw.

“As a dad, he was always there,” said his daughter, Cassandra Gay. His hobby as a glider pilot included the entire family; they would act as his crew and follow him on the ground when he flew his glider plane in contests, even once as he was in the path of a hurricane. Her dad was also a big Stanford football fan, Gay said, and was thrilled at a chance to lead the Stanford marching band on the football field holding a baton that he rigged with a screw so that it twirled constantly, in spite of his lack of baton-twirling skills. The opportunity of leading the band was a gift from his residents won at an auction.

“It was his engineering point of view,” Gay said. “If you don't know how to do something, you figure it out. He was an amazing man, but he was a humble man, too. Very down-to-earth. He loved to garden.”

In the last years of his life, his caregiver, Filipinas Panganiban, worked tirelessly by his side helping to make his life more comfortable, Gay said.

Bagshaw is survived by Gay and her husband, Larry, of Palo Alto; daughter, Sarah Machado, and her husband, Basil, of Felton, Calif.; son, David Bagshaw, and his wife, Wendy Petersmeyer, of Atherton, Calif.; sister, Pauline Young, and her husband, Robert, of Traverse City, Mich.; and eight grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the American Cancer Society at, or to the Malcolm A. Bagshaw Visiting Professor Fund, Stanford University Gift Processing, P.O. Box 20466, Stanford, CA, 94309. Checks can be made payable to Stanford University.

Parking and shuttle buses will be available for the memorial service.

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