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VOL. 11 | NO. 23 | Saturday, June 9, 2018

Editorial: St. Jude Reaches for Memphis’ Boldest Vision

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There aren’t too many physical reminders of the star-shaped building that housed the original St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in the early 1960s, other than the statue of St. Jude himself.

The hospital has grown its physical footprint and impact as it’s transformed from a basic medical institution into a world-class research center – and that pace is about to quicken considerably with its ambitious St. Jude Global initiative.

The concept is bigger than structures and acreage, though to be sure, St. Jude is no longer the outpost it once was on Downtown’s north end next to St. Joseph Hospital.

What St. Jude is building is as much a network of unprecedented cooperation and collaboration as it is a growing campus melding into an office district with other mixed uses.

At a time when we are talking about economic development and what the city should pursue in terms of business sectors, St. Jude is a reminder of a goal so large and ambitious that calling it economic development doesn’t begin to do it justice.

But the impact of the institution’s global move is unquestionably one that already is being felt with the search for new space for an undertaking that is growing and bringing new talent to the city every day.

One of our economic development goals over several decades has been the concept of Memphis as a research center. And in its origins was the idea of research campuses like the ones that dot cities with major universities.

There the best and the brightest would come, and from them would radiate not only research but more of the best and brightest – and the higher-paying jobs they occupy would translate into a ripple effect of growth.

Nobody really caught the wave on that, probably because the concept largely papers over many of the conflicting forces that are the Memphis identity. The collision of innovative medical research underway in advanced laboratories with persistent generational health problems and disparities is the most basic schism that requires bold thinking and bold declarations to find a way in Memphis.

It’s exactly that kind of boldness that brought Danny Thomas to Memphis in the late 1950s with a plan for a hospital that would turn no child away and would focus on those with diseases considered incurable. Toward the end of his life, with the campus he and others laid out already in transformation, Thomas pointed the way toward research into pediatric AIDS.

St. Jude’s growth has been accompanied by amazing strides. The childhood cancer survival rate in the 1960s was less than 20 percent; today, 80 percent of U.S. children with cancer become long-term survivors. Thomas’ children and the successors to St. Jude’s early researchers talk of a day when harsh treatments such as chemotherapy will be a thing of the past.

The boldest vision in Memphis’ history isn’t found in the grandest structure we can build or even the biggest workforce. It’s found in the idea of saving lives.

In that regard, St. Jude in the 21st century looks pretty familiar.

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