Dr. Alfred Ketcham, the captain of his high school football team who spent his senior year in a hospital after contracting polio, and later gained renown as an oncology surgeon who developed techniques for skull-base surgery and treating various forms of cancer, died on July 17.
Ketcham, chief of surgical oncology at the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center from 1974 to his retirement in 1995, was 92. He had had a gradual stroke, his daughter Sue Mehok said.
That early bout with polio, she believes, inspired him to go into medicine.
Ketcham was governor of the American College of Surgeons and president of the board of governors of the American Federation of Clinical Oncologic Societies.
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“Dr. Alfred Ketcham was one of the giants and pioneers in cancer surgery in the 20th century,” said Dr. Frederick Moffat, a surgical oncologist at Sylvester. “After a storied and stellar career at the National Cancer Institute … he came to Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center to found the Division of Surgical Oncology. He was instrumental in bringing the specialty to maturity, along with other top cancer surgeons of his generation.”
Moffat was Ketcham’s fifth fellow at UM in 1984. “He was a wonderful mentor for his proteges,” he said.
Alfred Ketcham was given a scientist’s mind as well as a surgeon’s hands.
Dr. Donald Morton, writing in the Journal of Surgical Oncology, 2007.
Ketcham, deemed one of the nation’s best cancer specialists in a Good Housekeeping magazine list in 1993, earned his medical degree from the University of Rochester in 1949. He joined the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda in 1957.
“He had a wonderful personality for his chosen avocation, eternally upbeat, with a warm demeanor and a great ability to communicate with his patients with clarity and hope,” said Moffat.
He treated me like his daughter. I was 28 and really scared; I was a brand new mom dealing with cancer.
Darleen Fenster, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine Magazine, 2008.
At UM, Ketcham helped carry out a five-year study, led by the University of Pittsburgh, that revealed that women need not sacrifice an entire breast to survive breast cancer. The results of the nation’s first major study comparing mastectomy with tumor removal and radiation were published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1985. “This is the first study to satisfy me that I was doing the right thing,” Ketcham told the Miami Herald that year.
Born near Rochester in Newark, New York, on Oct. 7, 1924, Ketcham’s father was a milkman and his mother taught in a one-room rural schoolhouse. Ketcham helped his father deliver milk on a horse-drawn wagon and joined the Great Lakes Merchant Marine and worked briefly as an Adirondack lumberjack. He married his high school sweetheart, Elsie Jane Chase, in 1945. She died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1998.
Ketcham, who lived in Coral Gables, served an international appointment as a consultant in oncology and as a liaison medical school representative for the U.S. Department of State, with territories that included the Virgin Islands and Central and South America. Naturally, a surgeon with his responsibilities kept long hours.
“But somehow we never felt it,” Mehok said. “He was a wonderful father. We would get in the station wagon, all six of us, two dogs and three cats, and we would drive up to Lake Ontario.” There, he had a two-story farmhouse and the avid sportsman taught his kids to ride horseback, water ski, hunt and fish. “Always the guy that inspired family reunions.”
Ketcham’s survivors also include his daughters Wendy, Sally and Dana Ketcham and Jill Simpson; 10 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. He was also predeceased by his son Jeff. A memorial will be at 4 p.m. Sunday at Stanfill Funeral Home, 10545 S Dixie Hwy., Pinecrest.