photograph courtesy St. Jude
Long before St. Jude, an aspiring actor named Danny Thomas appeared in The Unfinished Dance (1947) with Margaret O'Brien.
Who hasn’t heard the saga of Danny Thomas, the struggling entertainer who, in the late 1950s, made a desperate plea to the patron saint of lost causes? If St. Jude would give him a helping hand, Thomas would build a hospital for children in Memphis. His prayer was answered. He landed a starring role in Make Room for Daddy and the rest is history.
It’s a great story. But it wasn’t quite that simple.
Many years later, Thomas himself complained, “The way people talk you’d think I did this whole thing myself, with a pen knife and a shovel.”
Once Thomas committed himself to fulfilling the promise he made to St. Jude, he began contacting people in the business and entertainment industries to see how to make his dream a reality. Raising funds was a major priority, obviously, but other pressing issues involved hiring a staff, finding an architect and builder, and even selecting a location.
Not many people realize that Thomas’ initial promise to St. Jude never mentioned Memphis. In fact, Thomas had the notion that he wanted the hospital somewhere in the South, but he was leaning towards a small, rural community. It was only after meeting with his friend and adviser, Bishop Samuel Stritch, that Memphis was eventually selected as home to St. Jude Hospital, for the simple reason that Stritch was from Tennessee and felt the Bluff City would be the best location for a new hospital.
What Stritch and Thomas didn’t anticipate, however, was the reaction of the local medical community when they first announced their big plans for a hospital: Memphis didn’t want it.
LeBonheur had just opened here, and the Baptist, Methodist, and St. Joseph staffs felt that the medical needs of Memphis children were already being met, thank you very much. It was Dr. Lemuel Diggs, a professor at the University of Tennessee and an authority on leukemia and sickle cell anemia, who heard Thomas’ proposal, thought it over a bit, and then made the suggestion that changed the world.
Instead of another hospital that treated the various diseases of childhood, why not focus on one particularly vexing problem — the dreadfully low survival rate for childhood cancers? St. Jude, Diggs said, should be a research facility focusing on childhood cancer. As reported in From His Promise: The Story of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, “This simple proposal was to have a profound impact on Danny, on his supporters, on Memphis, and on the entire world.”
Fundraising could now focus on this specific, and unique, aspect of St. Jude. Doctors and staff could be hired who had a special interest in childhood cancers. And so a very unusual hospital was born, and Danny Thomas’ dream became a reality.
Space prevents us from telling the complete story of St. Jude in these pages. Fifty years of healing, hope, and — yes, some heartbreak along the way — can’t be compressed into the pages of a magazine. What we present here, in celebration of St. Jude’s 50th anniversary, are profiles of key players, tales of survivors, an account of the fundraising arm that has made St. Jude such a success, and a look at how the hospital has been steadily battling cancer — and winning that battle.
And we begin with some facts about Danny Thomas and St. Jude that aren’t part of the well-known story. We congratulate St. Jude on its first 50 years, and wish it continued success as it begins its next half-century of miracles.