Ralph deVere White's rise to the top of one of the country's finest cancer centers took root in a most unlikely place – the sidelines of a rugby game in Ireland. The year was 1961, and deVere White, then a mere lad of 15, had set course to follow his father into the practice of law. But sobering news interrupted that afternoon in Limerick – his grandmother had died of breast cancer.
"I decided then and there that I was going to be a surgeon, and that I was going to focus on cancer," deVere White, now 62, recalls. "I went off to do it. I never changed my mind, and here I am."
In 1996, deVere White took over the reins of the UC Davis Cancer Center, whose foundation was laid by its first director, James Goodnight, a surgical oncologist now chair of the Department of Surgery. Today, the cancer center is a regional powerhouse that cares for more than 9,000 adults and children annually and hosts 286 scientists at work on a vast array of research projects.
A prominent urologic oncologist, deVere White also maintains his prostate cancer research lab and is the principal investigator on six grants. And he remains one of the top genitourinary cancer surgeons in the country, beloved by patients who consistently rank him one of "The Best Doctors in America."
A talent for partnering
A dapper man with an unmistakable Irish brogue, deVere White is described by colleagues as a dynamic leader with a particular talent for uniting people behind a common agenda. Armed with boundless energy, he is continually seeking new partners – Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, for instance – to help distinguish and strengthen the cancer center's work.
Even his daily greeting, staff members say, reflects his belief in collaboration: "Good morning, team!" he chirps as he walks through the office door.
"His enthusiasm is contagious," says Jeanine Stiles, the cancer center's associate director for administration. "And he is an excellent mentor, not only to me but to students, researchers and young faculty."
The director himself uses a football analogy to describe his role: "You can be the coach, but you can't be the quarterback, the running back and all the rest of it. So I simply try to put good people together, and we go toward our goal as a team."
His overriding goal is to ensure the cancer center is a valuable and ever improving asset to the university, patients, the region and the world. In pursuit of that, he resolved early in his tenure to achieve a lofty prize – National Cancer Institute (NCI) designation.
To win NCI designation, a cancer center must prove itself capable of making a significant contribution to the fight against cancer and meet a stringent set of requirements. The honor is bestowed only after a rigorous review conducted by a team of experts dispatched by the NCI. Of the roughly 6,500 cancer centers nationwide, just 63 have earned the NCI designation.
In 2002, UC Davis became the 61st, capping an exhaustive drive that actually began in 1990, before deVere White took the reins. In 2005, the designation was renewed for a five-year period.
Besides prestige, designation has brought the cancer center a significant boost in federal grant dollars while aiding recruiting and the ever-essential job of fundraising.
"Designation is not a beauty contest," deVere White says. "It means you've been vetted, you are continually being vetted, and you're good."
Reaching next rung
Now deVere White is pursuing a still grander goal – NCI designation as a "comprehensive" cancer center. Reaching that rung on the ladder would put UC Davis in an even more exclusive club, confirming that the center had achieved substantial depth and breadth in its education, basic science and clinical programs.
"It's the final step that all major academic medical centers aspire to," says William Bigbee, a professor of pathology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine who serves on the cancer center's external advisory board. "Ralph is pushing hard to get there, and he has that unique combination of talent, vision and determination to do it."
His friends are not surprised to see deVere White driving the cancer center toward an ever higher state of excellence. They say he constantly encourages faculty and staff to stretch to maximize their potential, and provides them with the opportunities and resources to do so.
Overall, colleagues credit him for converting UC Davis from a respected cancer treatment center to a research force to be reckoned with. By forging strong, mutually beneficial partnerships with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, in particular, deVere White has given the cancer center distinctive strengths.
"I think that's the reason why UC Davis was viewed as so valuable to the NCI cancer-centers program," says James K. V. Willson, chairman of the cancer center's external advisory board and associate dean for oncology programs at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. "He has taken advantage of the university's outstanding components and made them even better through integration."
Examples of collaborative achievements abound, but one stands out – the development of a miniaturized proton-beam accelerator that promises to revolutionize the delivery of radiation therapy. At the outset of the joint project with the Livermore lab, deVere White recalls, "everyone thought we had about a 2 percent chance of making it happen." Now, a company has invested significant funds into its development and hopes to have it ready to deploy by 2010.
While no one would doubt deVere White's seriousness of purpose, he is not one to ignore the softer side of life. He is a voracious reader, loves to hike in the woods near his vacation home outside of Truckee and enjoys prowling antique stores and art galleries.
His wife, Antoinette, is an avid volunteer for Maryhouse, a daytime shelter for homeless women and children, and husband Ralph devotes what spare time he can to the effort. The couple has been known to search encampments for homeless women needing help, and they have adopted a string of dogs from down-on-their-luck owners no longer able to keep a pet. The latest is Ginger, an opinionated spaniel/dachshund cross.
By year's end, deVere White's life will take another interesting turn, when he becomes the proud, if somewhat wary, co-owner of an Irish pub near the state Capitol, a venture launched by his three grown sons.
"I won't tell you it's not fun, because it is, but Mum and Dad would not be in the pub business if not for the boys, let me assure you," he says. "And we're not washing glasses."