The Exeter Bulletin — Fall 2000
Joseph H. Burchenal '30
"Few have walked that bridge of commonality around the world as well as you," wrote the trustees of the Academy in the 1974 John Phillips Award citation honoring Dr. Joseph Burchenal '30, a former director of clinical investigation at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and professor of medicine, emeritus, at Cornell University Medical College. The universality of Burchenal's life is as true today as it was then.
Burchenal spearheaded the class's 70th reunion last May, a gathering of 10 incorrigible members of that great class. He thought the class ought to have a 70th reunion, a prerequisite, perhaps, to celebrating a 75th.
Getting to Exeter was nothing for Burchenal. Since retiring in 1984 he has indulged his passion and hiked around many of the world's highest peaks.
His first trip, following retirement, was to Nepal, where he and his wife, Joan, with their son and daughter-in-law, spent 24 days in the Annapurna region. After 10 hours of climbing, Burchenal said they were happy to make camp and retire in their tents, pitched, in the higher elevations, on snow and ice. Burchenal has been back to Nepal and has completed other treks as well, including the 54K Milford track in New Zealand. Last year, he was in Cusco in the Andes and it was the first time he descended from there to Machu Picchu.
Burchenal says he generally has done "fairly" well in what interests him. He recalls that at Exeter, Princeton, and UPENN, which awarded him his M.D., he received "gentleman's grades." Only while serving in the Army during World War II, did he come into his own. Given the opportunity to attend a course on tropical medicine, he finished first in the class, a credential that impressed others and led to an association with Sloan-Kettering and a life devoted to leukemia research.
Conquering cancer has been the goal of researchers like Dr. Burchenal, who was a pioneer in the development of chemotherapy. "I'm the wrong man to ask if this might someday happen. I've always thought something could be found. The most exciting advances today are treatments based on molecular study, active compounds designed to interfere with the disease," he says. He cites the achievements of Lance Armstrong, the American biker who won the Tour de France two years after a chemotherapeutic cure of testicular cancer metastatic to lungs and brain, as proof of their effectiveness.
Still recovering from heart problems in March, Dr. Burchenal has spent a quieter summer than usual. For 50 years, he has sought out the mountains of the Keene Valley in the Adirondacks of upper New York State. "They don't compare with the Himalayas, but with 46 mountains over 4,000 feet, there's no better hiking than in the high peaks area of Essex County." The cancer researcher has hiked them all, setting an example of goal setting and attainment, essential for those now engaged in completing the work he pioneered.