George Bernard Shaw once said “Youth is wasted on the young.” But for Sharon Murphy, MD, youth is in the hands of exactly the right people. As a medical student, Dr. Murphy was considering a career in internal medicine; doing rounds on the adult wards changed her mind.
“When you have a ward full of 80-year-old stroke patients, there’s just not much on the curative side that you can do for them,” she explained to Oncology News International.
So Dr. Murphy shifted gears and switched her focus to pediatrics. “Using the proper interventions, pediatrics offered the chance to affect an entire lifetime,” she said.
Dr. Murphy has since become one of the foremost authorities in pediatric oncology and the namesake for the St. Jude/Murphy Staging System for childhood hematological disorders, including lymphoblastic lymphoma and childhood non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Dr. Murphy is currently at the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in Washington, DC. She discussed her career highlights and her vision for the future with Oncology News International.
Life in the lab
Dr. Murphy grew up in suburban Chicago with no childhood dreams of becoming a doctor. “I didn’t form the notion of going into medicine until I was way into college. At that time, girls basically became secretaries, teachers, retail sales clerks, and nurses,” she said. “So based on no good reasoning I decided to become a nurse, and I enrolled in the University of Wisconsin School of Nursing. But I soon realized it was a mistake. Nursing simply was not me.”
However, Dr. Murphy had always had a yen for science, so she entered a baccalaureate program at the university and majored in the “new field” of molecular biology. She worked part-time as a laboratory technician in the oncology department at the Madison-based institution.
“I ended up working in the lab as an undergrad for three years and two summers. That experience cemented my interest in medicine,” Dr. Murphy said.
The 10% rule
In 1965, Dr. Murphy was accepted at Harvard Medical School, an experience she described as transformative. “There were 10 women in a class of 100. There had been 10 women the year before, and the year before that. It was a quota,” she said. During World War II, Harvard first began admitting women, but only so that they made up 10% of the student body. The university stuck with that formula for some time.
Asked if she was overwhelmed by her minority status, Dr. Murphy replied, “Oh no, I loved it!”
Challenging conventional wisdom
Sensing that general pediatrics was not challenging enough, Dr. Murphy gravitated to pediatric oncology. “It was a fabulous time to enter the field because it was just then that curative therapies for leukemia were being devised,” said Dr. Murphy, who graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1969.
Dr. Murphy completed an exciting training stint in pediatric oncology as a student at Harvard’s Jimmy Fund program, which later became the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (Dr. Farber was still working!). She then finished her internship and residence at the University of Colorado Medical Center (1969-1971). She then did a double fellowship at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHoP), University of Pennsylvania (1971 to 1973).
“This was before combined hem/onc certification, so I had to do separate fellowships in hematology and oncology to become board-certified in pediatric hematology/oncology,” she explained.