Wednesday, January 13, 2016


In 2013, I published a tribute to G. Barry Pierce that had been previously published in a journal.  In the comments section of that post, I noted the recent passing of Barry, and his obituary can be read here.  Several folks have emailed me with a few thoughts about Barry, and one fellow left his phone number in the comments section, asking to chat sometime.  I called David Rives and we had a long conversation with recollections of Barry.  I asked David if he would write something, and he obliged with several comments in the original post.  They are combined here - Thank you David.

Great talking with you yesterday, Doug.

As mentioned: in my senior year at Michigan, majoring in Cellular Biology, about to enter Michigan Medical School, my instructor in Cell Physiology lab came up to me one day and said, "Barry Pierce is giving a lecture this afternoon. Wanna go?", to which I answered "Sure."

Sat through the hour-long lecture -- on teratocarcinoma, naturally -- then, the next day, went to visit Dr. Pierce in his office in the Path Dept. "basement" (i.e., ground floor).

"Can I help you?" he said.

"Yes. My name is David Rives. I'm majoring in Cell Biology. I've taken a lot of biology classes, and chemistry classes, and physics classes and math classes."


"Also, I'm a pretty smart guy."


"Well, I sat through your entire lecture yesterday, on teratocarcinoma--?"


"And...well...I didn't understand a word you said!"


"So, therefore, I will have to go to work for you this Summer -- if for no other reason than to do whatever it takes to, in fact, understand what the hell you said!"

To which the great doctor smiled and shook his head. "Well, I've never had anyone ask for a job that way, so I guess I'll have to hire you! What day do you graduate?"

"May 5th."

"Fine, then you'll start the following Monday."

Which I did.

As it happens, in addition to Michigan Med, I had also been accepted to Washington University in St. Louis, and the UC Med School in San Francisco. However, all I'd ever wanted to do with my medical education was: cure cancer. Which I was now about to do -- working for one of this country's three ACS Lifetime Professors!

Which meant I no longer "needed" Wash U or UC. So, I told both of them what they could do with my acceptance.

Well, I start work in Dr. Pierce's lab. Naturally, my first question, to one of my labmates is: "So, 

where, exactly, is the 'Cancer Cure' department in this rather extensive laboratory?" 

"Oh, he says,"you don't know?"

"Know what?"

"We don't do that anymore." 

"Excuse me?!"

"I said--"

"No, I heard that. But what do you mean, 'you don't do that anymore'?"

"Exactly what I said: We don't do that anymore. We do 'basement membrane' instead."

"'Basement membrane'?"

"That's right: Dr. Pierce is looking for a way to alter basement membrane."

"What the hell for?!"

"Oh, because he thinks we might be able to cure kidney disease that way -- you know, glomerulonephritis and the like."

So, there I stood, chafing at the bit to cure cancer, figuring I had accidentally stumbled on the best way to do that (I mean, the guy had his OWN ELECTRON MICROSCOPE, for God's sake, and was thinking of ordering another, at a time when the entire Michigan Biology Dept. was trying to figure out how to get their FIRST!); having told two other pretty good medical schools -- that featured curricula I'd DROOLED over -- to "kiss off; I've got what I was looking for," with the full knowledge that the medical school I WOULD be going to -- the University of Michigan -- was among the worst, education-wise, in the country, no matter what "reputation" they may have garnered outside Ann Arbor -- there I stood, with all of that going on, only to be told, "Oh, we don't do that anymore"(?!)

Are you with me here: an entire LIFETIME changed because of a misunderstanding; because "we don't do that anymore" which no one bothered to tell me, ahead of time, was the case in the Pierce lab(!)

So, what did this semi-cum laude graduate of the University of Michigan wind up doing in that lab that summer? 

Just this: killing mice, by breaking their necks, then cutting off their tails, holding the "body end" of the tail in one hand, a pair of pliers in the other, grabbing the distal end of the tail with the pliers, then pulling out strands of pure collagen from the interior of the tail, so the guys in the lab down the hall could analyze it and compare it with basement membrane. That's it.

Oh, Barry did "throw me a bone" now and then -- once, by letting me chop up a cancer he had come across and implant bits of it in some mice spleens, to see if they would grow there (some actually did). 

And I got to use his ultracentrifuge once or twice, to spin down some RNA, to see if it would have any effect on the resulting tumors (it didn't). But that was essentially it for the summer.

In the Fall, I started Michigan Medical School and, as I had been forewarned, it turned out to be one of the worst educational experiences a human being could go through.

Luckily for the Medical School, most of the class had their eyes so firmly planted on the MONEY doctors made/make that the LAST thing they would be doing was complaining about the curriculum. 

"Oh no," their attitude was, "just let me suffer through this crap, so I can come out the other end a rich man!"

To humor me, I guess, the school stuck me in the Honors program, but that was little more than a "frying-pan-to-fire" arabesque.

In the end (i.e., after two years), I simply left the school, after starting to ask the "wrong questions:" 

1) "Excuse me, professors, is there anything we can actually CURE?!" "Uh, nothing that comes to mind." 
2) "Well, since we can't 'cure' anything, what about -- oh, I don't know -- PREVENTING disease! How does THAT grab you?"

"'Prevent disease'?! Are you crazy?! You want to put us out of business?! Get out of here!"

So, I did.

Moved to the West Coast and eventually began doing what I had wanted to do via Medical School: prevent disease, with my books "Walk Yourself Thin" and "Dying for a Smoke."

Anyway, that's my (Barry Pierce) story and I'm "sticking to it!"

Glad I had the chance to share it with those who knew the man.


Rambilicus said...

Did not know the route to becoming an all star cancer researcher included "take two aspirins and call me in the morning."

Doc said...

Probably way ahead of the times - it seems clear now that aspirin lowers the risk of several types of cancer and is also likely a benefit in cancer treatments.

Rambilicus said...

What I was referring to is why a person interested in cancer research thought he had to become a medical doctor first. Wouldn't some sort of high level PhD work just as well?

Doc said...

oops - sorry I am so dense! However, a good point, and indeed a PhD would certainly suffice for pursuing a career in cancer research. I am ambivalent about MD's and research - on the one hand, their clinical training can be of great benefit for understanding the relationship between the lab and the clinic. On the other hand, MDs doing only basic research removes a care-giver from the health care system.