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Johnian honoured for pioneering work in cancer research

The plaque dedicated to Professor Norman Bleehen with (left to right) Professor Chris Dobson; Professor Bleehen's widow, Dr Tirza Bleehen and Professor Richard Gilbertson, Head of the Department of Oncology at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute. Image credit: Dr Tirza Bleehen

A ceremony has been held at the Department of Oncology to celebrate the opening of the Professor Norman Montague Bleehen Oncology Offices. The new offices have been named after Professor Norman Bleehen CBE, a Fellow of St John’s who passed away in 2008. They honour his outstanding contributions to cancer research and treatments.

Professor Bleehen was a founder of academic oncology in the UK and his pioneering work as a clinical and research oncologist, specialising in the treatment of lung and brain cancer, is recognised world-wide.

The ceremony to celebrate the opening of the Offices was attended by members of the Department of Oncology, the family of Professor Bleehen and members of St John’s College, including the Master, Professor Christopher Dobson. A plaque to commemorate Professor Bleehen’s contribution and service to the University of Cambridge and Addenbrooke’s Hospital and its patients has also been placed in the department.

Professor Bleheen was the first Cancer Research Campaign Professor of Clinical Oncology and Radiotherapeutics at the University of Cambridge. Under his leadership, the success of the department attracted major investment for cancer research in Cambridge, laying the foundations for the establishment of Cambridge’s Cancer Institute.

Professor Bleehen established the concept of careful trials of cancer treatments, one of the most outstanding achievements of his career. He realised that new cancer drugs needed to be rigorously evaluated and recognised the need for a dedicated group to supervise the statistical and data management tasks associated with the good design and successful conduct of clinical trials. In 1977 he started a Cancer Trials office within his unit at Cambridge, the success of which led to an independent Cancer Trials Unit, set up by the Medical Research Council (MRC).

During his lifetime, Professor Bleehen held many prestigious posts including Chairman of the MRC Cancer Therapy Committee, Chairman of the British Association for Cancer Research, Founder and Vice President of the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer, President of the International Society for Radiation Oncology, and consultant to the Research Co-ordination Group of the International Atomic Energy Agency for the Improvement of Cancer Therapy. He also represented the UK government in the Europe Against Cancer Programme.

Publishing extensively on means to improve cancer therapy, Professor Bleehen was the author of six books and over 400 papers, chapters and editorials.

Professor Bleehen was elected to the Fellowship at St John’s in 1976 and remained a Fellow of the College until his death at the age of 77. After dedicating much of his life’s work to research into lung cancer, it is particularly sad that he died of the disease.

Recruiting and mentoring many exceptional scientists and clinicians during his career, Professor Bleehen is remembered by his colleagues for his ability to foster talent in his students. He was also noted for his high standards, his modesty and for the great deal of empathy he showed to his patients.