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George A Sisson
A prominent US Ear, Nose and Throat specialist who practiced in Syracuse and later taught at the Northwestern University in Chicago. He was enlisted by the tobacco industry to give evidence at Congressional Hearings opposing compulsory warnings on cigarette packets. A few years later, however, he appears to have had a Damascian conversion and joined forces with the actor Yul Brynner to create an anti-smoking organisation.
Dr George A Sisson was an ear, nose and throat specialist, who, in 1965 along with three other colleagues ( Joseph Ogura , Harold Tabb and Alden Miller ) were persuaded by a very generous cash offer from Philip Morris, to give evidence (along with a dozen or so other experts) to the Congressional Hearings into cigarette pack warning labels.
Their joint statement said: "We believe that it has yet to be proved that cigarette smoking is a causal factor in laryngeal cancer."
This quote was circulated around the US and international tobacco industry to be used by their PR people and lobbyists in a handbook of useful defenses, under the heading "Scientists Who Have Counseled Against Acceptance of The Simple Theory That Smoking cases Cancer."
The four Otolayngologists declined to give written permission to the tobacco industry's lawyers, Shook Hardy & Bacon, but there was nothing they could do to stop the tobacco industry using their Congressional testimony in an over simplistic way to suggest that they supported the industry's views that cigarettes aren't cancer-causing.
Sisson found that his statement to Congress had also been misreported in his local Syracuse newspaper as absolving cigarettes from causing lung-cancer, and this brought him under attack from other medical colleagues. Lung-cancer, he complained was not his field of expertise — and his only statement had been about laryngeal cancer. [He later changed his mind on this also.]
If he hadn't been so dazzled by the tobacco industry's money, he would have comprehended that anything he said would be used to support cigarette addiction. And, with a bit more thought, he might also have become aware that reporters or their readers might not necessarily make the clinical distinction between throat, esophageal and lung-cancers. If reporters were misinterpreting his evidence, then Congressmen would probably do the same.
Chicago Sisson later moved to Chicago, and a few years later he was approached again by Philip Morris to give Congressional evidence at a later hearing. He needed the money and said that he was willing to do so. They paid him an up front fee of $6,000, which at that time was a considerable sum.
However there is no evidence in the archives that he did attend Congress, or give evidence at the hearing, or support the tobacco industry further in any way. Nor is there evidence that he paid the $6,000 back!
Sisson and Ogura did join forces once again to produce a historical review of throat cancers and related conditions in which smoking is strongly implicated as a cause of lung-cancer.
Then in 1984 he became friendly with actor Yul Brynner who had been diagnosed with smoking-cause lung-cancer. Brynner was loudly promoting the "Don't smoke" message on radio and TV. They jointly set up an institute to promote this message, shortly before Yul Brynner's death in 1985.
There are a number of Sisson's in the tobacco archives, most noticably a tobacco chemist Verne A Sisson who worked for US Tobacco. There is also a Dr George Sisson Jr, an Orthopedic Surgeon in Chicago (probably a son)
• Originally teaching at the Syracuse School of Medicine, and later a full Profesor at Northwestern University, Chicago.
1965 /E: This is either a Tobacco Institute or Philip Morris list of collaborating scientists who can be trusted to give pro-industry support. Sisson's associate Joseph Ogora is listed among the Otolaryngologists as an industry helper [Ogura, Tadd, Miller and Sisson gave a join statement to Congress this year]
1965 March 22-30: and April 1-3 S&H Hearings of the Committee of Commerce, US Senate.
1965 April: 6-8 and May 4 S&H Hearings of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, House of Representatives.
1965 March: - May: The tobacco industry is circulating the joint statement of Ogura, Miller, Sisson and Tabb at the Congressional Hearings.The joint statement they made (for about $5-6,000 each) was:
"We believe that it has yet to be proved that cigarette smoking is a causal factor in laryngeal cancer."
[Note that this referred only to laryngeal cancer and it was made BEFORE most doctors and pathologists accepted the evidence against smoking was overwhelming. Many of them still smoked.]
1966 Feb 28: William Shinn (Lawyer of Shook Hardy & Bacon) has sent his legal partner a list of the doctors (and others) who testified for the tobacco industry at the Congressional Hearings, with notes about how confidentially the evidence of each needs to be treated. Sisson and his three associates did not reply to the request.
1966 May: He is being listed by lawyer Alex Holtzman of Philip Morris as having given evidence for the industry at the Congressional Hearings into cigarette labeling. They are obviously looking for witnesses at another hearing.
The organization of witnesses for these Congressional hearings appears to have been a Philip Morris task, but conducted through Kansas City lawyers, Shook Hardy & Bacon (rather than the Tobacco Institute). Holtzman is sending copies of the statements to Toney File (sic) of the Tobacco Institute.
1967–89: Sisson has now moved from Syracuse to become the Chairman and Professor of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery at Northwestern Medical School and Hospital [from his Obit]
1968 Apr 8: Addison Yeamans, lawyer for Brown & Williamson, writes to Geoff F Todd at the Tobacco Research Council in London saying:
We expect no Congressional hearings in this session of Congress but do of course know that hearings will be held in 1969 in anticipation of the expiration of those provisions of the Cigarette Labeling Act...
1968 July 3: Alex Holtzman, the in-house lawyer for Philip Morris in New York has telephoned Dr George Sisson in Chicago [a week before], where he is now "chief of otolaryngology at Northwest University and in seven large hospitals in the Chicago area." In his 'memo to the files Holtzman records:
I told him about the possibility of further Congressional hearings later this year having to do with strengthening the warning and asked him if he would be willing to be a witness.
[Clearly Philip Morris wanted to pay its expert witnesses only after they gave evidence at the Congressional Hearings ... the witness can then truthfully say that he has not been paid by the industry to appear.]
He said he would, but he hoped that he would not be misquoted as he was the last time. He says the Syracuse Herald which had a reporter at the hearings completely misrepresented his testimony.
The article said he had testified on lung cancer and that he was a lung surgeon; whereas, his testimony was entered on the subject of laryngeal cancer and his practice deals entirely with laryngeal surgery. He said he took an awful beating from his colleagues who wanted to know what he was doing testifying about lung cancer.
I asked if he would be willing to defer postponement of payment of his bill until after the next round of hearings. He told me that he needs the money now since he is moving his family from Syracuse, and also his move to Chicago has resulted in a substantial lowering of his income. I told him I would have a check for him in a couple of weeks.
He said there is a good deal of research being done in his department and at various hospitals with which he is associated and asked if the tobacco industry might be willing to support something in his field. I said I would discuss this with him the next time I saw him.
1968 July 6: This BAT fax quotes Dr Mold of L&M "last week testifying to the US Congressional hearing on smoking and health in Washington."
However, this appears to have been a one-day hearing. In July and August the tobacco lawyers are circulating a [still confidential] "List of assignments" about "Witness Development efforts in preparation for Congressional Hearings on proposed cigarette labeling legislation" for "next year."
1968 July 10: Lawyer Ed Jacobs (who handled the tobacco industry's secret accounts) sends Alex Holtzman a check for $6,000 made payable to George A Sisson MD. [This must be a fair indication of how much the other otolaryngologists in the group were paid for their testimony also. Sisson wasn't especially eminent at that time.]
[The payment appears to be a form of a retainer since there is no document in the archives that suggests he ever gave evidence at any later Congressional hearing, or that he provided them with any information. Nor did he apply for or receive any research grants.]
1968 Jul 16: A document [still confidential] from Shinn of SH&B to Holtzman at PM "regarding source of a criteria for potential scientifc witnesses for the 1969 Congressional Hearings. http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/bro88d00
[It appears as if there were to be no hearing until then]
Sisson's initial flirtation with the tobacco lobby could well be due to a combination of the times, and a need for income. His second agreement was possibly due to the cost and salary sacrifice of his relocation to Chicago, and possibly the need to impress Northwestern University with his prowess at garnering research funds for a new department.
The year's delay between his acceptance of Holtzman's proposal and the Congressional hearing, appears to have given him time to reflect on how his support was being used by the industry, and to withdraw from further association. This change of opinion about the dangers of tobacco was not uncommon among medical men in the period.
1972 Sep: Leonard Zahn, a scientific 'private eye/monitor' working for the tobacco industry (he attends scientific conferences to monitor the experts and their research) places Sisson at Buffalo, New York in his report. Sisson appears to now be associated with the (anti-smoking) Roswell Cancer Center.
1975 June: /E Head and Neck Cancer, State of the Art Conference is being planned for New Orleans. Sisson and Joseph H Ogura (Washington University School of Medicine, St Louis) are on the planning and steering committees for this conference.
1976 Feb 16 - 18: A scientific paper coauthored by Sisson and Ogura (with others) presented at the New Orleans conference "Discusses trends in head and neck (including pharynx, larynx, lung, and esophagus) cancer incidence" and concludes "First, there is clearly a smoking-alcohol component to all these diseases."
The major single cause of the increase is lung cancer — strongly smoking related. In women, the patterns are less distinct. Overall there have been decreases, but in some specific sites increases. Again, the major change in incidence has been the enormous increase in lung cancer in women.
It must be remarked, however, that although women have come a long way it is not likely that they will catch up with men in lung cancer — since present day cigarettes have less tar and nicotine than the one smoked, mostly by men, in the past.
1984: The Yul Brynner Head and Neck Cancer Foundation.
Yul Brynner, a popular he-man movie actor in the 1980s and 70s was dying of lung cancer in 1984.
Dr. Sisson co-founded, and was a major contributor, to the Yul Brynner Head and Neck Cancer Foundation (YBF). In the 1980s while Mr Brynner was being treated for a pre-malignant condition of the larynx, he and George Sisson became friends. Their close friendship led to the establishment of the Yul Brynner Head and Neck Cancer Foundation in 1984.
Mr. Brynner passed away in 1985 after recording a dramatic public service announcement about the dangers of smoking that was killing him. At Mr. BrynnerŐs request, the announcement aired after his death. The organization was formed to educate children and adults about the dangers of smoking and to raise funds for head and neck cancer research.
The Yul Brynner Head and Neck Cancer Foundation was created by the late actor after an abnormality was found on his vocal chord in the 1980s. With the combined vision of Yul Brynner and the knowledge and experience of Dr. George Sisson, the Yul Brynner Foundation was incorporated in Chicago in 1984 for the purpose of educating the public about the harmful effects of tobacco and its relationship to mouth and throat cancer.
1989 Mar 24: "The Cancer Letter" reported:
GEORGE SISSON, Northwestern Univ. will deliver the Hayes Martin Lecture at the annual meeting of the Society of Head & Neck Surgeons, to be held concurrently with SSO in San Francisco. [SSO = Society of Surgical Oncology]
1996: He retired.
2006 Aug 6: George Sisson died.
Dr. Sisson lived during a rapidly changing time for the field of medicine. During WWI, emergency medical care saw many new surgical procedures that were developed by trial and error. New antibiotics in the early 1930s cleared the way for surgical advancement. Head and neck surgery was a new frontier, and most of today's routine procedures were not yet even ideas.
Dr. Sisson pioneered many complicated and radical procedures that are now considered standard treatment, or were predecessors of procedures commonly used today. Most important, George spearheaded radical changes in the way the head and neck surgery is now taught, and how the profession certifies and maintains high standards among its practitioners. If asked, Dr. Sisson would say the path he followed was due to many coincidences of time and place, as well as motivated physicians, the best of the best, who helped him along the way.
During his lifetime, George was president of every significantly political and educational organization in head and neck surgery (1). At one time he held two presidencies. He was a master politician at a time when the profession needed one, and he was in great demand internationally as a guest speaker. In addition to training, education, and setting standards, George pioneered several radical surgical techniques and saw the gratifying success of these advances.
In addition to serving in various leadership positions at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Sisson pioneered original research on recurrent cancer of the larynx, cancer of the Paranasal sinuses, and rehabilitation of voice following laryngeal cancer. He authored or coauthored more than 300 books, chapters, and journal articles on all aspects of head and neck cancer and medical education.