Dr. Audrey Evans, a world-renowned pediatric cancer researcher who co-founded the Ronald McDonald House Charities in Philadelphia, has died at 97 years old, the foundation’s Philadelphia branch said Thursday.
A native of England, Evans was a trailblazer for women in medicine and was recruited in the late 1960’s to lead the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s new Childhood Cancer Center. At the time, children diagnosed with cancer faced long odds of survival and their families had limited services available to them.
At a time when few women were given opportunities in positions of leadership at hospitals, Evans was brought to CHOP by Dr. C. Everett Koop, then the hospital’s head of pediatric surgery and later U.S. Surgeon General. She went on to become one of the most influential figures in her field, contributing decades of research and hands-on care that have saved countless lives.
The Ronald McDonald House Charities said Evans died peacefully, but did not disclose a cause.
Film crews have been in Philadelphia this month shooting “Audrey’s Children,” a biopic that focuses on Dr. Evans’ devotion to changing the fortunes of young cancer patients and their families. The film, produced by Amasia Entertainment and Resonate Entertainment, is expected to be released in 2023.
In the cancer community, Evans is known as the “Mother of Neuroblastoma” for her research that helped improve treatment options and survival rates of one of the most common forms of childhood cancer. Her Evans Staging System enabled care providers to make better choices about when and whether to treat young patients, many of them younger than 5 years old.
After Evans implemented her staging system at CHOP in 1971, the approach was credited with increasing survival rates among neuroblastoma patients from about 10% to 50%. She later co-founded the National Wilms Tumor Study in collaboration with leading neurosurgeons and radiation therapists in order to advance data-based research.
Evans also was a leading advocate for a “total care” approach to cancer treatment, ensuring that patients’ social and familial needs were an integral part of CHOP’s program. This commitment led to the establishment of the first Ronald McDonald House in West Philadelphia in 1974, an initiative she spearheaded with support from the Philadelphia Eagles and McDonald’s. The home provided lodging and other services to families who traveled away from their homes to get cancer treatment for their children at CHOP.
The home became a model for more than 375 other Ronald McDonald Houses in 45 countries and regions. The services have also expanded, including 689 RMHC-affiliated programs in 66 countries and regions.
Evans received her medical degree from the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, Scotland, and completed residencies at Boston Children’s Hospital, Johns Hopkins University, the Royal Infirmary Teaching Hospital and the University of Chicago. Much of the time, she was the only female resident in her cohort.
After serving as CHOP’s Oncology chair for 20 years, Evans partially retired in 1989 and continued her work on neuroblastoma in the lab for another 20 years. She went on to co-found the St. James School in the Hunting Park neighborhood of North Philadelphia. The private, tuition-free Episcopal middle school aims to address inequities through education.
Over the years, Evans has received a number of awards and recognitions, including the Distinguished Career Award from the American Society of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology and the William Osler Patient Oriented Research Award from the University of Pennsylvania. She also earned the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Advances in Neuroblastoma Research Association.
The screenplay for “Audrey’s Children” is written by Julia Fisher Farbman, who had interviewed Evans in 2016 as part of her “Modern Hero” series on Amazon Prime. Evans will be played in the film by Natalie Dormer, who has had notable roles in “Game of Thrones” and “The Hunger Games.”
In 2005, at the age of 79, Evans married her longtime colleague, Dr. Giulio D’Angio, a radiation oncologist at CHOP and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. D’Angio died in 2018 at 96 years old.
Outside her professional life, Evans was an avid horse rider and lifelong student of the art of dressage. She also was a scuba diving enthusiast who traveled the world on numerous occasions.
Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Philadelphia Region and St. James School will co-host a public memorial for Evans at a date yet to be determined.