Heller, John Roderick

February 27, 1905–May 4, 1989

On April 14, 1948, he was appointed Director of the National Cancer Institute...Heller headed the institute for twelve years, a period in which federal financing for cancer research and treatment was greatly expanded.

Physician, medical researcher. Heller was born in Fair Play, South Carolina, on February, 27, 1905. He received a B.S. degree from Clemson College in 1925 and an M.D. from Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1929. He began his medical career as an intern at South Pacific Hospital in San Francisco, California (1929–30), and worked as a surgical resident at Mills Memorial Hospital in San Mateo, California, in 1930. That same year Heller entered public-health work as a clinician and administrator for the Georgia State Board of Health on a syphilis-control project conducted jointly with the U.S. Public Health Service. In August 1931 Heller joined the Public Health Service and worked as a venereal disease clinician in Arkansas until 1932, when he became a venereal disease control officer for the State Department of Health in Tennessee. In 1934 he became a commissioned officer in the Public Health Service and began work as a clinician at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland (1934–35), and later worked at the University of Virginia Medical School.

On July 1, 1943, Heller was appointed chief of the Division of Venereal Diseases, where he directed the wartime programs of venereal disease control. On April 14, 1948, he was appointed Director of the National Cancer Institute, replacing Dr. Leonard A. Scheele, who had been named surgeon general. Heller headed the institute for twelve years, a period in which federal financing for cancer research and treatment was greatly expanded.

On July 1, 1960, he left the United States Public Health Service, with which he had been associated since 1931, to become president and chief executive officer of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, a position in which he served until illness forced his retirement in 1964. Afterward he served as a special consultant to the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute regarding international cooperation in cancer research. He officially retired in 1976.

During his career Heller received a number of accolades. In 1958 he received the Wien Award, and in 1961 he became the first recipient of the World Peace through World Health Award presented by the Eleanor Roosevelt Cancer Foundation. Heller also received the Medal of the Scandinavian Cancer Union in 1969. He was the president of the American Venereal Disease Association in 1948 and 1949 and president of the Cancer Public Health Association in 1957. Heller died on May 4, 1989 in Bethesda, Maryland.

Heller, John Roderick, 1977. South Carolina Hall of Fame Files. South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, S.C.

“Dr. John R. Heller Jr. Dies at 84; Headed National Cancer Institute.” New York Times, May 6, 1989.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Heller, John Roderick
  • Coverage February 27, 1905–May 4, 1989
  • Author
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date February 27, 2024
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 3, 2016
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