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1926 to 2018 Eleanor Montague, pioneering figure in breast cancer, dead at 92

November 21, 2018

Eleanor Montague, a Houston radiation oncologist who helped pioneer breast-conserving cancer therapy at a time when women were mostly only offered radical mastectomy, died earlier this month. She was 92.

Montague, a rare woman in cancer care in the 1960s, was an advocate of patient participation in treatment as well as an early proponent for the combined use of surgery and radiation in the treatment of tumors of the breast, an approach she implemented at MD Anderson Cancer Center before it later became standard care everywhere.

“She was a pioneer in two ways,” said James Olson, a Sam Houston State University history professor and the author of Making Cancer History: Disease & Discovery at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “She pioneered combination therapy and she paved the way for women to enter and thrive in cancer care.”

Montague was also instrumental in MD Anderson’s leading role in the general use of combination therapy, including chemotherapy, in the ’70s and ‘80s, said Dr. Gabriel Hortobagyi, former chairman of the center’s department of breast medical oncology. He cited Montague’s moderating influence when other disciplines’ resistance to chemotherapy’s then new role in treatment made for heated discussions.

Hortobagyi said Montague’s great quality was to provide “the 30,000-feet view in the middle of discussions in which she didn’t have any particular interest.”

“She was so calm and even keeled,” said Hortobagyi, who describes Montague as one of his mentors. “She’d have a way of suggesting something was worth trying, reminding us we were there to progress for the sake of patients, that defused arguments.”

Hortobagyi said Montague doesn’t get enough credit for ushering in the era in which breast cancer no longer had to be treated by radical mastectomy. He said the practice-changing ’70s randomized studies that showed partial mastectomy and radiation is just as effective as radical mastectomy’s disfiguring total removal of the breast and chest muscle were influenced and informed by earlier studies Montague conducted, based on treatment at MD Anderson.

Montague never made the front page of newspapers, but one moment of fame occurred in 1985, when she mixed it up with one of of the leading proponents of radical mastectomy on Nightline. Describing her uncharacteristic no-holds-barred performance on the show, daughter Melanie Trent Montague says her mother kicked his posterior, in slightly more colloquial language.

Montague flew to Taiwan to treat Madame Chiang Kai-shek in the late 1970s. The younger Montague said that because the family wouldn’t let her use ink to mark the treatment areas, her mother thought she’d done “a terrible job and wasn’t proud of her work.” Melanie said “she must not have done too badly her patient lived to be 105.”

Olson said Montague remains a hero to female oncologists, who saw “a future in the cancer care because of her example.” He noted how she earned great respect at an institution and in a field so dominated by men when she arrived at MD Anderson in 1959 and throughout the ’60s and ’70s.

She was inducted to the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.

Montague was born Eleanor Dino on Feb. 11, 1926 in Genoa, Italy, and grew up in Pennsylvania. She got a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Alabama and her M.D. from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. During her residency at Kings County Hospital, she was one of only two women, both forced to house in a former dormitory for nurses about to be torn down. Melanie said her mother described the other trainee as the real pioneer because she was black and a woman.

Montague met her husband, Dr. Meredith Montague III, while working at the hospital’s ER. She overheard him say he would never marry a woman doctor. They married a few years later.

The couple worked in Japan for two years while he was stationed at a MASH unit there before coming to Houston. He went into private practice and she went to work for MD Anderson.

Among Montague’s many awards were the American Radium Society’s Janeway Medal, the Radiological Society of America’s Gold Medal and the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology’s Gold Medal for Distinguished and Extraordinary Service. She was also the American Association for Women Radiologists’ Marie Curie Recipient.

Montague is survived by four children and seven grandchildren. Meredith Montague died in 2002.

todd.ackerman@chron.com

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