ST. LOUIS — Among the dozen or so framed photos of family and momentous occasions earning spots on a shelf in Dr. Timothy Eberlein’s office is one of him and Alvin Siteman. It was taken at an event about six years ago. They have their arms around each other and are smiling broadly.
The photographer had joked that the two needed to get closer for the picture, like the two actually knew each other.
The picture is special, Eberlein says, because of how Siteman responded at the time: “Yeah, why not? He’s my partner.”
It meant a lot, said Eberlein, director of the Siteman Cancer Center named in Siteman’s honor. “Gee, do you really mean that? That’s a promotion!” he recalled saying.
More than 22 years ago, Eberlein moved to St. Louis to become chairman of the surgery department at Washington University Medical Center. A month after arriving, he was tasked with developing a cancer center — combining disciplines across the university and Barnes-Jewish Hospital to work together to improve treatment, research and prevention.
The catalyst came a year later, when Alvin and Ruth Siteman agreed to donate $35 million to the effort. Though the Sitemans are intensely private, they agreed to lend their name to the center. It proved key in giving the center credibility, the promise that it was going to be something big.
In just six months, the medical school was able to raise the additional $75 million needed to build the facility and fund its programs.
In 2001, the Siteman Cancer Center on the medical campus at Kingshighway and Forest Park Boulevard was completed.
Eberlein was the Siteman Cancer Center’s first director and has remained the director ever since.
The center quickly flourished. The same year it opened, Siteman became a federally designated cancer research center. In 2004, the federal National Cancer Institute designated it a Comprehensive Cancer Center, placing Siteman among the most highly ranked cancer institutions in the nation.
The dean of Washington University School of Medicine called Eberlein a visionary with “incredible taste” in the doctors and researchers he recruited.
“We have one of the most highly rated cancer centers in the country, and that is reflected in the fact that Eberlein has been the director since its inception. It’s a measure of his impact,” said Dr. David Perlmutter.
Five years ago, Siteman Cancer Center was among a handful that earned the highest possible “exceptional” rating from the National Cancer Institute — the largest source of research dollars — because of its expertise.
Treating 75,000 patients a year, the center has become among the top five busiest in the country. It receives $177 million in research funding and conducts more than 500 clinical trials each year, giving patients access to developing treatments.
Four satellite Siteman Cancer Centers have opened across the St. Louis region, with a fifth opening this month in the Metro East.
Alvin Siteman never stopped giving throughout the growth, which has led to some of the biggest discoveries in cancer research, and he’s never stopped calling Eberlein his partner.
“You know, Ruth and I are very private people, but almost everywhere I go I see my name,” Siteman recently told Eberlein. “I suppose I have you to thank for that.”
In a rare combination, Siteman and Eberlein have been named the 2019 Citizens of the Year. The honor, usually given to just one person, is sponsored by the Post-Dispatch and selected by a committee of past winners.
“I still joke with him. I say, ‘Gee, Al, we weren’t even a start-up and you were willing to invest in us? What did you see?’” said Eberlein, 68. (Siteman, 91, has yet to grant any media requests for interviews or photos.) “For him, it was a passion.”
It was an epiphany
Eberlein and Siteman can attribute their successful partnership to similar trajectories of hard work, passion and curiosity.
Eberlein says he grew up on the “other side of tracks” in New Kensington, Pennsylvania. His mother was a church secretary and his father was a foreman in a glass factory.
He earned a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh and worked his way through college. The summer between his sophomore and junior years, however, an economic downturn made his usual construction and steel mill jobs hard to find.
His brother, a police detective in Washington, D.C., urged him to join him in the nation’s capital and apply for a job at a Veterans Administration hospital sterilizing surgical instruments. He got the job, the only white person in the department at the time. His supervisor, a black woman, took him under her wing.
Thinking it might spark something in him, she encouraged Eberlein to volunteer to hold the retractor in the operating room for two weeks while the medical students were gone. She was right.
“It was an epiphany,” Eberlein said. “I instantly knew that what I wanted to do was to be a surgeon, cure disease and people.”
He went to the University of Pittsburgh Medical School and completed his surgical residency training at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Wanting to learn more about cancer research, he also completed fellowships at the National Cancer Institute.
He went on to become an endowed professor at Harvard Medical School and the surgical oncology division chief and vice chairman for research in Brigham and Women’s surgery department. In 1998, Washington University School of Medicine came knocking.
Siteman is the oldest of three children born to Bertha and Phillip Siteman, a Russian who emigrated to St. Louis as a child. Phillip Siteman and his father founded Site Oil Co. in the 1930s, and he led a property development and management firm.
Alvin Siteman went to Clayton High School, graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he was 20 and took over the family businesses. In 1986, he bought most of the Mark Twain Bancshares stock.
Two subsequent bank mergers earned him more than $200 million, according to news reports. Known as an astute and no-nonsense businessman, he still goes to his office in Clayton as chairman of Site Oil Co., Eberlein said.
Siteman served on the board of Jewish Hospital for more than a decade before it merged with Barnes Hospital in 1996. As a board member, he was aware of unsuccessful attempts to create a cancer center, Eberlein said.
In a rare video of Siteman, used for a cancer center fundraiser in 2012, he says the impetus for his initial gift came from a friend with an aggressive brain cancer. “I observed, as a close friend of the family, how very difficult it was for the family to have to go to Houston” for treatment, he said.
Eberlein recalls Siteman asking why they can’t have a cancer center in St. Louis to which people from other cities could come because of the great care it provides.
“That’s why he made the investment, and why he lent his name to the cancer center,” said Eberlein, who also still cares for patients. “The rest, I guess, is history.”
Siteman took a risk on investing in the cancer center, and he has continued to quietly and expertly give millions to its budding scientists there, leading to some of the biggest breakthroughs in cancer research.
Those who have worked with him say Siteman has an uncanny instinct about whom he should take a risk on. He tests not just an idea, but the brains behind it. He loves innovation.
In 2007, Siteman agreed to gift researchers $1 million in their effort to sequence the first cancer genome. It was risky at the time, and the scientists had failed to win federal funding.
They were successful, discovering key mutations and developing a blueprint to follow for discovering genetic clues to cancer. Their discoveries led to the explosion of cancer genomics. Thousands more cancerous tissues have since been sequenced, revealing new drug targets and therapies for all types of cancer.
In 2010, Siteman endowed the Siteman Cancer Research Fund, which provides at least $1 million annually to pioneering research, allowing the most brilliant scientists to pursue new concepts in fighting cancer.
Awards have gone to efforts to use light to kill cancer cells, develop cancer vaccines, attack treatment-resistant breast cancer, precisely target radiation treatments and determine which leukemia patients are likely to relapse and require different treatment.
In 2014, Siteman helped immunologist Robert Schreiber, whose work had proved that a patient’s own immune system could be used to fight cancer. Siteman’s donation helped open the Center for Human Immunology and Immunotherapy Programs, arming Schreiber with a state-of-the-art laboratory and team of researchers needed to advance the science into patient care.
“The Siteman Cancer Center has had a trajectory of growth that has really been unprecedented. It takes money to continue to grow a program,” Eberlein said. “The generous support of him and Ruth have been pivotal to keep that trajectory going. We’ve never slowed down in the past 20 years.”
One million patients
Eberlein says Siteman Cancer Center is known for its expertise in four areas: genomics, immunotherapy, imaging technology and prevention.
Prevention efforts have included education and outreach in north St. Louis and St. Louis County, where the cancer burden is high. Eberlein says the efforts have reduced late-stage cancer presentations among African American women by 40 percent and are making similar progress in prostate cancers among men.
The latest satellite cancer center opened in November in Florissant, as access to care and a support system close by are seen as keys in recovery.
“Over the years, we’ve become close friends, Al and I,” Eberlein said. “He’s taken particular pride in not just the innovation, the new technologies, the new treatments, he often talks about how important it is to take care of patients and their families, to support them emotionally. He has been a big proponent of taking care of the whole patient, not just the cancer.”
Eberlein has also worked as an advocate, testifying before the U.S. Senate about the critical need for federal research funding. This year, he hit the streets along with about a dozen other doctors to collect signatures as part of an effort to place Medicaid expansion on the November ballot.
“It’s wrong to force families to choose between going to see a doctor and putting food on the table,” Eberlein said at the time.
Siteman and Eberlein occasionally meet for lunch, where their conversation focuses on the latest advances and discoveries taking place at the center. They discuss things like personal cancer vaccines and how genomics guides treatment plans.
In a recent lunch, Eberlein revealed a new milestone. He told Siteman they had surpassed taking care of 1 million patients. “He was moved by that,” Eberlein said. “You could just tell he was very moved. He was very touched.”
It’s been a very successful partnership, Eberlein said.
Perlmutter, the medical school dean, says it’s perfect they won the award together.
“Tim has worked so hard to execute what Al has provided support for,” Perlmutter said. “It’s the combination of philanthropy and generosity and execution of a plan, and it’s a great story for St. Louis.”