- Edward L. Lach, Jr.
Strax, Philip (01 January 1909–09 March 1999), radiologist, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Jacob Strax, a garment worker, and Molly Pelchow Strax. He received his B.S. degree from New York University in 1928 and remained there to attend medical school, earning his M.D. in 1931. He married Bertha Goldberg in 1932; they would have four children. On completing his internship and residencies at Jewish Hospital of Brooklyn (1931–1933) and New York Postgraduate Medical School (1933–1936), respectively, Strax opened a general family practice in Manhattan and also served as a roentgenologist at Bellevue Hospital.
Strax might have remained an obscure member of the medical community were it not for his wife's untimely death in 1947 from breast cancer at the age of thirty-nine. Devastated by his wife's death, he decided to devote the remainder of his professional career to fighting the disease. Although surgeons and radiologists had attempted to apply radiological technology to the detection of breast cancer as early as 1913, the general consensus within the medical profession was that the technology was of limited usefulness; many physicians felt that mortality from the disease was largely a function of the strength of each individual occurrence, and placed little importance on early detection. Also, the diagnostic equipment at that time was better suited to examining hard tissues such as bones because it produced unclear images when used on soft tissue.
On 28 January 1949, Strax married Gertrude Jacobsen; they would have two children. In 1950 he went to New York's City Hospital, where he served as director of radiology until 1966 (concurrently holding the same post at Elmhurst General Hospital between 1962 and 1966). Heartened by improvements in radiology that allowed better imaging of soft tissues, Strax, working with colleagues Sam Shapiro and Louis Venet, undertook a massive controlled study between 1963 and 1966 among more that 62.000 women in the New York area. Sponsored by the Health Insurance Plan (HIP) of Greater New York, the study was the first attempt to determine the effectiveness of mammograms in reducing mortality from breast cancer. During the study, half of the women involved were given mammograms as well as manual breast examinations, while the control group received no treatment at all. When the first results of the study were released several years later, it was determined that the group receiving mammograms had suffered one-third fewer deaths than the control group. Follow-up evaluations confirmed the original findings of the study and also confirmed a continued significant reduction in mortality among participants.
After assuming the position of director of radiology at New York's LaGuardia Hospital in 1966, Strax literally took his act on the road, becoming the first person to organize mobile breast examination vans that visited area neighborhoods. Sponsored by the Guttman Institute, each van was capable of providing up to seventy mammograms a day at little or no cost to local women. In addition to serving as the director of the Guttman Institute, Strax also organized Park Avenue Radiology in New York as well as the Strax Institute in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He served at LaGuardia until 1979 and in 1980 received the National Annual Award of the American Cancer Society for his contributions to breast cancer detection. In 1988 he was the recipient, along with Sam Shapiro, of a $100,000 award from the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation for his work on the HIP study, which, according to the foundation, “almost unilaterally changed medical thinking about early detection.” A fellow of the American College of Radiology, Strax was also the author of several books on cancer, most notably Early Detection: Breast Cancer Is Curable (1974), and was the editor of Control of Breast Cancer (1988).
Strax also had a lifelong interest in poetry and wrote three books on the subject. He retired to Hollywood, Florida, and died at the home of his daughter in Bethesda, Maryland.
Although debate continues about mammograms (particularly for women under 50), there is no doubt that many lives have been saved by the pioneering work of Philip Strax. His career was a classic example of a professional who, through dogged persistence in the face of collegial doubt, turned personal tragedy into a solid advance in medical diagnostic procedures.
No collection of Strax's papers has been located. The results of his groundbreaking study with HIP can be found in P. Strax, L. Venet, and S. Shapiro, “Value of Mammography in Reduction of Mortality from Breast Cancer in Mass Screenings,” American Journal of Roentgenology 117 (1973): 686–89. His work is placed in historical context in Richard H. Gold, “The Evolution of Mammography,” Radiologic Clinics of North America 30, no. 1 (1992): 1–19. An obituary is in the New York Times, 11 Mar. 1999.