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A look back at the first use of radiation therapy on its 117th anniversary

Jan 29, 2015

Early x-ray
Credit Flickr user Internet Archive Book Images / Flickr

This week marks the 117 year anniversary of the first radiation treatment for cancer. Emil Grubbe is credited for his work on the case when he was still in medical school.

University of Michigan physician and medical historian Dr. Howard Markel says Grubbe was still a student when he discovered that huge doses of radiation may be able to kill cells. This discovery came after he severely burned his hand by using an early x-ray on it multiple times over a short duration. The technology had only been invented a few months prior and little was known about the consequences of the high doses of radiation involved.

After showing the wound to his professors, one doctor recalled his patient, 55 year old Rose Lee, who had already been submitted to a severe operation to remove tumors only for it to come back. They tested Grubbe's theory on Lee the very next day, but Markel says the results were inconclusive because Lee died only a few days later.

The radiation was then tested on another patient, but it again proved to be inconclusive when the patient died months later from an unrelated accident.

Grubbe didn't claim to be the first until 1901, far after his time at medical school. Markel says Grubbe never published his results, forcing many to doubt his claim to being the first. He later found the records to support his affirmation, but there is still speculation.

According to Markel, Grubbe went on to become a successful radiologist in Chicago. Before his death Grubbe left his fortune and library to the University of Chicago medical school, but with the stipulation that someone write an autobiography about him in order to secure his place in history. This demand was fulfilled by the head of the radiology department begrudgingly, who published an honest account of his legacy.

"If he wasn't the first, he was certainly among the first cohort of doctors to use this remarkable tool and radiation oncology remains a very major tool in the arsenal against cancer to this very day," says Markel.