Danny Thomas and the Founding of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
It was More than 50 years ago that Danny Thomas, then a struggling young entertainer with $7 in his pocket, knelt in a Detroit church before a statue of St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes. Thomas asked the saint to “show me my way in life.”
His prayer was answered, and soon he moved his family to Chicago to pursue career offers. A few years later, at another turning point in his life, Thomas again prayed to St. Jude and pledged to someday build a shrine to the saint.
Throughout the next years , Thomas’ career prospered through films and television, and he became a nationally known entertainer. He remembered his pledge to build a shrine to St. Jude.
In the early 1950s, Thomas began discussing with friends what concrete form his vow might take. Gradually, the idea of a children’s hospital, possibly in Memphis , took shape. In 1955, Thomas and a group of Memphis businessmen who had agreed to help in supporting his dream seized on the idea of creating a unique research hospital devoted to curing catastrophic diseases in children. More than just a treatment facility, this would be a research center for the children of the world.
Thomas had started raising money for his vision of St. Jude in the early 1950s. By 1955, the local business leaders who had joined his cause began area fund-raising efforts, supplementing Thomas’ benefit shows that brought scores of major entertainment stars to Memphis . Often accompanied by his wife, Rose Marie, Thomas crisscrossed the United States by car talking about his dream and raising funds at meetings and benefits. The pace was so hectic that Thomas and his wife once visited 28 cities in 32 days. Although Thomas and his friends raised the money to build the hospital, they now faced the daunting task of funding its annual operation.
To solve this problem , Thomas turned to his fellow Americans of Arabic-speaking heritage. Believing deeply that Arabic-speaking Americans should, as a group, thank the United States for the gifts of freedom given their parents, Thomas also felt the support of St. Jude would be a noble way of honoring his immigrant forefathers who had come to America .
THOMAS’ request struck a responsive chord . In 1957, 100 representatives of the Arab-American community met in Chicago to form ALSAC â —the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities—with a sole purpose of raising funds for the support of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital â . (continued) Danny Thomas and Founding (continued)
Since that time, this group, with national headquarters in Memphis and regional offices throughout the United States , has assumed full responsibility for all the hospital’s fund-raising efforts, raising millions annually through benefits and solicitation drives among Americans of all ethnic, religious and racial backgrounds. Today, ALSAC is America ’s fourth largest health-care charity and is supported by the efforts of more than 1 million volunteers nationwide.
Danny’s dream —St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital—opened its doors in 1962 and is now recognized as one of the world’s premier centers for study and treatment of catastrophic diseases in children. Focusing on pediatric leukemias, solid tumor forms of cancer, infectious diseases and biomedical research, during its first decade of existence, the hospital’s curative therapies and research successes spread its fame worldwide and helped save the lives of innumerable children everywhere.
Today’s basic and clinical research at St. Jude includes work in bone marrow transplantation, gene therapy, chemotherapy, the biochemistry of normal and cancerous cells, radiation treatment, blood diseases, resistance to therapy, viruses, hereditary diseases, infectious diseases, and psychological effects of catastrophic illnesses. Now blessed with the first sizable population of adults living cancer free after having received chemotherapy and radiation treatments as children, the hospital stays in touch with these former patients in order to conduct long-term biostatistical investigations on the history of their health. Potential secondary problems related to their disease treatment could result in chemotherapy and radiation adjustments that improve the life of future children diagnosed with cancer.
To date , St. Jude has treated about 18,000 children from across the United States and 60 foreign countries. All were accepted by physician referral because the children had newly diagnosed diseases that were under research at St. Jude. Ability to pay has not been an issue for admittance for one single patient. All St. Jude patients are treated regardless of their ability to pay, with ALSAC covering all costs not covered by insurance for medical treatment rendered at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital . Families without insurance are never asked to pay.
Through striking improvements in the care of pediatric leukemias and numerous forms of solid tumors, Thomas’ “little hospital in Memphis”—which now has daily operating costs of approximately $606,000—has brought about improved health care for children all over the world.
From a promise of “show me my way in life and I will build you a shrine” to the fulfillment of his dream, Danny Thomas lived to see his little hospital become a beacon of hope for the catastrophically ill children of the world. The founder of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and ALSAC died on February 6, 1991 , just two days after joining patients, parents and employees to celebrate the hospital’s 29th anniversary. He was laid to rest in a family crypt at the Danny Thomas/ALSAC Pavilion on the grounds of the hospital. On July 12, 2000 , his wife, Rose Marie, passed away and now lies with her beloved husband in the hospital’s Memorial Garden . Today, their children, Marlo, Terre and Tony, carry on their parents’ work and remain a driving force in fulfilling their father’s mission. Danny is gone, but his dream lives on.