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Odile SCHWEIGUTH, a pioneer in pediatric cancer

When discussing the different branches of medicine, we often talk about cancer or pediatrics, but never pediatric cancer. Yet it is a specialty that exists well and Odile Schweiguth is one of the pioneers.

Born on October 18, 1913, in Remiremont (Vosges), she grew up between France and Germany where she did most of her schooling.

Back in France, she began medical studies in Nancy, finishing in Paris to follow her family who moved there. After a PhD in oncology, she graduated in 1946. Interested in pediatrics, she began her career at the Hôpital des Enfants Malades and trained with Professor Robert Debré, a pediatrician already recognized.

In 1948, René Huguenin, director of the Institut Gustave Roussy (IGR), an institute specializing in cancer treatment, was looking for a person to look after the pediatric department. At the time, childhood cancer was of little interest to doctors who considered it almost incurable. René Huguenin sought the advice of Robert Debré, who gave him the name Odile Schweiguth. She then became head of the pediatric department.

When he started at the IGR, children were treated in the same department as adults. She repeatedly requested the creation of a specialized service for children with adapted facilities. After many refusals, she lobbies and eventually gets her service. Thus, in 1952, Odile Schweiguth founded the first French and even European pediatric cancer department.

She gained experience over the years and developed the first specialization course on childhood leukemia and solid tumors. In 1959, she went to the United States to train at the Jimmy Fund Clinic, a children’s cancer center. There, she discovers a different perspective of cancer in children that are not considered hopeless but that would be curable. She also observed an innovative approach where psychological aspects are important and taken into account when accompanying patients.

Back in France, Odile Schweiguth brought this new vision with her and set up psychological support for children and families in parallel with treatment. In addition, aware of the difficulty of his specialty and the stress caused by working with very sick children, sometimes close to death, it establishes a psychological service that aims to provide support and avoid burnout among health workers. This is the first service in the world of this type.

Starting in 1966, she encouraged doctors to visit her department. Practitioners come from the four corners of France and Europe to observe and train. The institute became the training center for the treatment of childhood cancers.

Convinced of the importance of the cause of children with cancer, she published 1970 "Should we let them die?" in the French Pediatric Archives.

In this plea, she takes stock of all the progress made in her discipline and defends the existence of a real scientific interest in pediatric oncology and its management. Through her travels and meetings during visits to her department, she created a network of like-minded people and created the International Society for Pediatric Oncology (SIAP).

Throughout her career and even after her retirement in 1978, she maintained a strong connection with many of her patients with whom she continued to correspond for the rest of her life.

Odile Schweiguth trained a whole generation of pediatric oncologists and played a key role in structuring this new discipline, pediatric oncology. It has helped to highlight in France and Europe the possibility of treating children with cancer and contributed to the recognition of this specialty which has long been ignored. His determination and dedication to the cause of children earned him the highest French civil honor, the Legion of Honour.


Written par Aymane

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