Hutchinson, Dr. William B. (1909-1997)

  • By Louis Fiset
  • Posted 12/30/2004
  • Essay 7183

Following a dedication ceremony on September 5, 1975, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center opened the doors of its $12 million, seven-story research and treatment facility, situated on land acquired from nearby Swedish Hospital on Seattle’s First Hill.  Senators Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Warren G. Magnuson (D-Wash.), Governor Daniel J. Evans, and baseball great Joe DiMaggio were among those in attendance. This ceremony marked the fulfillment of a 20-year long vision of the Center’s founder, surgeon William B. Hutchinson.  He believed research, not the scalpel, would provide the ultimate answer to cancer -- humanity’s great plague.  An avid athlete himself, he was the older brother of the great baseball player Fred Hutchinson (1919-1964), for whom the Center was named.  His was a dual and intersecting life. The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named William Hutchinson First Citizen of 1975, in part for his development of cancer research facilities, and also for his work with youth athletic programs.

Medicine and Baseball

As a physician, the soft-spoken but resolute Hutchinson was a functioning visionary, able to wear down resistance of his peers in the local and regional medical communities who believed the start-up costs of the cancer research center to be prohibitive.  They argued -- unsuccessfully -- that sustaining funds for the future might not be available, and that the University of Washington Medical School should run any such center.  In order to realize his dream, Hutchinson rolled up his sleeves with powerful political entities and funding agencies in order to procure the necessary millions in federal grants and private funding. 

William Hutchinson lived baseball, as did his famous younger brother, Fred Hutchinson, for whom the research center is named.  Bill, born on September 6, 1909, was Fred's senior by 10 years. The son of a respected general practitioner in south Seattle, he was talented enough to be able to choose between a career in professional baseball or in medicine.  He chose medicine, but baseball would remain an important part of his life. 

His commitment to the game continued while serving as team physician to the Seattle Rainiers. In the late 1950s when his sons put on the uniform, he began still another baseball career, this time as youth coach to aspiring ball players moving up through the amateur ranks of Little League, Babe Ruth League, and Connie Mack League, and the semi-pro league.  And baseball would help bring to fruition the cancer research center.

The Early Vision

In 1956, through Hutchinson’s efforts and with help from the U.S. Department of Public Health, the vision of a cancer research center emerged with the birth of the Pacific Northwest Research Foundation.  Its initial goals centered on basic and clinical research devoted to the improvement of patient care.  The foundation dedicated itself to the study of heart surgery, cancer, and diseases of the endocrine system.  However, by 1962 Hutchinson and his group had set their sights on a new goal, a center devoted to cancer research. 

The vision would take on new meaning for the Hutchinson family two years later when Fred died of lung cancer at the age of 45 (on November 12, 1964).  The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center was launched the next year (1965) and established as a division of the Pacific Northwest Research Foundation.

The Great Fred Hutchinson

The Hutchinson family name was well known to Seattle citizens, which may have projected the center into the limelight and helped it achieve essential local and regional support. Earlier, “Freddie” Hutchinson, as a pitcher, catcher, outfielder, and hitter, led Franklin High School to four straight championships. Following graduation he turned to the professional ranks.  One year out of high school, in 1938 he pitched for the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League, winning his 19th game on his 19th birthday.  At the end of the season he was voted the League’s most valuable player. 

This launched Fred into the major leagues and a career spanning more than two decades as a player and manager.  Long before Seattle had its own Major League team, in 1955 and 1959 he also piloted the Seattle Rainiers, and once again endeared local sports fans and the press.

Bill and Baseball

Bill preceded Fred as a baseball standout. Being 10 years older than Fred, he may have  provided a helpful role model for his younger brother. As a third baseman Bill captained the 1931 University of Washington Huskies baseball team, batting .410 in his senior year.

The San Francisco Missions of the Pacific Coast League signed him to a Class AAA contract, and he was invited to spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates.  However, Bill had his sights on medical school and chose the life of a physician rather than that of a ball player. 

A Life in Medicine

Accepted to Montreal’s McGill University Medical School, Bill completed the program (1931-1935) then moved on to Baltimore’s Union Memorial Hospital to complete an internship and his surgery residency.  Early in his training there he met Charlotte Rigdon, also in training, as surgical nurse, and they married in Delta, Pennsylvania, Charlotte’s childhood home.

The couple returned to Seattle in 1940.  Hutchinson worked at Providence Hospital for two years while maintaining an office in downtown’s Medical Dental Building.  He then joined the staff of Dr. Nils E. Johanson, founder of Swedish Hospital, where he practiced surgery for the next four decades (1941-1988).  During Bill's formative years as a surgeon he and Charlotte had their children: Charlotte, William Jr., John, Stuart, and Mary. 

Hutchinson performed surgery on many cancer patients throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and came to the conclusion that the researcher, not the surgeon, would prevail in the struggle against cancer.  He knew the commitment to founding a cancer research center would take “great effort and time and the expenditure of great amounts of money.”  And he was up to the task.

A Great Effort

In 1967 the National Cancer Institute awarded the Center a planning and development grant for a feasibility study.  The next year the National Institutes of Health awarded it a $2 million construction grant to be augmented by $1 million in local matching funds.  The project stalled when President Nixon cancelled all cancer center construction grants. 

But Senator Warren G. Magnuson drove around the roadblock by maneuvering through Congress a $5 million bill to establish a cancer center in the Pacific Northwest.  When asked to distribute the money, Hutchinson was adamant about not sharing the resources but rather committing them to “one good cancer center ... and not a lot of fragments.”

One Good Cancer Center

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center was chosen, and subsequently Hutchinson raised $5 million through local sources.  He assured the local medical community of the Center’s research focus by changing its name to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.  This helped to assuage the concerns of local hospital directors who saw their lucrative business of cancer treatment falling into jeopardy.

In 1973 a National Cancer Institute construction grant of $1,237,000 finally enabled the groundreaking of “the Hutch” to take place in August 1973.

To establish the Center required not only federal money but also state support.  Specifically Hutchinson went after an affiliation with the University of Washington because he wanted some of their people on his staff.  He invited UW representatives to sit on the board and recruited a number of UW scientists including Dr. E. Donnall Thomas (1920-2012), a professor in the School of Medicine. 

Thomas’s pioneering work in bone marrow transplantation to thwart the effects of lethal doses of chemotherapy and radiation would soon make the Hutch the world leader in bone-marrow transplants. In 1990 it brought Thomas the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries concerning organ and cell transplantation in the treatment of human disease.  In 1981, the year Hutchinson retired as the Center’s first president and director, the Center completed its one thousandth patient bone-marrow transplant.

The affiliation agreement Hutchinson signed with the University of Washington on behalf of the Center ensured retention of faculty appointments for new recruits and new appointments for those who would arrive later.  Cooperative arrangements with local hospitals such as Children’s and Swedish and other institutions throughout the region have endured.

No Pussyfooting Around

Hutchinson’s determined persistence cajoling, finessing, and at times ramrodding the cancer center into existence -- “You can’t run a cancer center or anything else, in my opinion, pussyfooting around” -- has resulted in an institution characterized by world renowned depth and variety as they relate to immunology and immunotherapy. 

In 1991 the “Fred Hutch” began the move from what had become its cramped quarters in the shadow of Swedish Hospital to an 11-acre, $300 million campus located in the Cascade Neighborhood near the south end of Seattle’s Lake Union.  In 1996 the Molecular Medicine building was named in Dr. Hutchinson’s honor.

Awards and Honors

Hutchinson received many awards and honors over his career, including the University of Washington Husky Hall of Fame (1995); the UW Distinguished Achievement Award, College of Arts and Sciences (1993); State of Washington Medal of Merit Award (1988); UW Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus Award (1983); and Seattle University Doctor of Humanities (1982). He served on the Yarborough Committee in 1970, which assisted Congress in writing the National Cancer Act.  In 1975 the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors honored him with their First Citizen Award (1975). 

Today (2004) the Fred Hutch employs more than 2,500 faculty and staff.  Its current president, Dr. Leland H. Hartwell, was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries regarding the mechanics that control cell division. More recently, Dr. Linda Buck received the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system

William Hutchinson died on October 26, 1997, on the last day of the World Series. A Seattle Times editorial stated:  “Dr. William Hutchinson’s legacy is his battle plan for cancer: compassion, diligence and creativity, one patient, one study, one step at a time.” 


Argus, March 27, 1959; Ibid., August 29, 1975; Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center website ( ); Pacific Northwest Research Institute website (; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 2, 1975; Ibid., September 6, 1975; Ibid., April 20, 1995; The Seattle Times, October 28,1997; Ibid., October 30, 1997; Seattle Weekly, July 25, 1990; Louis Fiset interview with Charlotte Hutchinson Reed, Seattle, Washington, October 8, 2004.

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