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Lasting Legacy: Joan Kemp

Joan Kemp is a living legend at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.

When she began her career working for John Durant, M.D., in September 1969, he had only been serving as the cancer planning coordinator in the now-named UAB Heersink School of Medicine for about 14 months. At the time, Kemp was the sole member of Durant’s support staff.

“There was not much in the way of cancer at UAB during this time: Dr. Durant was the only medical oncologist, Dr. Robert Roth was the only radiation therapist and Dr. William Maddox was a part-time oncology surgeon,” Kemp said. “Dr. Durant had a vision that UAB could become a premier cancer center.”

When UAB formalized its cancer program in 1970, Durant was named its director and Kemp the assistant to the director. She worked with Durant to submit UAB’s first National Cancer Institute planning grant application and, over the course of her next 48 years at the Cancer Center, submitted the first nine NCI core grant renewal applications, all of which were successful in obtaining or maintaining the Cancer Center’s ongoing status as an NCI-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center.

When Durant left UAB in 1982, Kemp continued to serve in her role as assistant under former directors Albert LoBuglio, M.D., who led the O’Neal Cancer Center from 1983 to 2004, and Edward Partridge, M.D., who assumed the position in 2007. Kemp remained assistant to the director, as well as director of operations at the Cancer Center, for the duration of Partridge’s tenure until both she and Partridge retired in 2017.

“I was so very blessed to be able to work at the Cancer Center with three such outstanding directors and with so many wonderful people for so many years,” she said. “Once I started there, I never even looked for another job.”

In 2012, the LoBuglios, the Partridges and the wife of the late Durant, Mary Sue Durant, established an endowment to create the Joan Kemp Outstanding Service Award in recognition of Kemp’s nearly 50 years of service to the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The award is presented to outstanding staff members who carry on Kemp’s legacy of dedication, passion and service to the O’Neal Cancer Center. The award’s current holder is Beena Thannickal, who worked at the O’Neal Cancer Center from 2011 to 2021 and served as its communications director from 2013 to 2021.

“I always went to Joan for perspective,” Thannickal said. “You could say that know-how came from her long history with the Cancer Center, but I would also venture to say it’s who Joan is. She is kind, she is humble and she cares – seemingly simple traits that make for an amazing example of how to be in the workplace and in life.”

From the Archives

The following remarks were originally made by Joan Kemp, former assistant to the director of the O’Neal Cancer Center, on Feb. 24, 2011, at the unveiling of a commissioned portrait of the O’Neal Cancer Center’s first three directors: John Durant, M.D., Albert LoBuglio, M.D., and Edward Partridge, M.D.

In her own words, Kemp fondly describes each of the three directors under whom she served in her 48 years at the O’Neal Cancer Center.

Forty years of pioneers at the O’Neal Cancer Center, in the words of Joan Kemp:

  • O'neal comprehensive Cancer Center 50th Anniversary

    On John R. Durant, M.D.

    1970 – 1982

    “First, the founding director, Dr. John R. Durant, AKA the visionary. The most remarkable thing that I can share with you today regarding Dr. Durant is that I was always in ‘the current day.’ Dr. Durant was 20 years in the future.”

  • O'neal comprehensive Cancer Center 50th Anniversary

    On Albert F. LoBuglio, M.D.

    1983 – 2004

    “This man can do more with a yellow pad and a No. 2 pencil than any individual on the face of the earth. During his tenure as director, he did not have a computer on his desk. The staff would jokingly refer to the pencil and paper as his hard drive. The software was his brain.”

  • O'neal comprehensive Cancer Center 50th Anniversary

    On Edward E. Partridge, M.D.

    2007 – 2017

    “Then there’s Dr. Edward Partridge, the true Southern gentleman and consummate leader, who has spent the last 20 years of his life building the community infrastructure to make sure that every individual in our region, no matter their socioeconomic status, has access to quality medical care and screening.”

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