How playing with dangerous x-rays led to the discovery of radiation treatment for cancer

tags: cancer, x-rays, radiation treatment

Dr. Howard Markel is the director of the Center for the History of Medicine and the George E. Wantz Distinguished Professor of the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan.

When the German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen’s announced his discovery of the x-ray in December of 1895, he was lauded on the front page of just about every newspaper in the world. Indeed, many journalists called this phenomenon “X-Ray Mania.”
In the months and years that followed, inventors like Thomas Edison set out to manufacturing X-ray fluoroscopes, shoe stores used X-rays to measure the size of their customers’ feet, and carnival barkers hawked them as novelties for fairgoers who eagerly purchased “radiographs” of their bones. Most importantly, physicians began to figure out ways to apply this earthshaking discovery to the diagnosis and treatment of a host of serious illnesses that had long plagued humankind.

One of the first Americans to use X-ray radiation to treat cancer was a Chicago chemist and homeopathic physician named Émil Grubbé (1875-1960). The patient, Rose Lee, was a 55-year old woman suffering from the recurrence of inoperable breast cancer.

Grubbé graduated from the Hahnemann Medical College, a homeopathic medical school, in 1898. But in 1896, he was earning his living as a chemist and assayer. As part of his work, he often tinkered with the latest electronic gadgets of the day, such as Crookes tubes, induction coils, electric generators and fluorescent and photographic chemicals and plates. Included in many of the newspaper accounts of the discovery of X-rays were precise drawings of Röntgen’s apparatus. Grubbé had all of these devices, including the important Crookes tube, on his workbench. As a result, he was able to reproduce Röntgen’s work and set out to make his own “radiographs,” or x-rays, on photographic plates.

Like many a scientific investigator of this era, Grubbé was his own “guinea pig.” Every day for two weeks, he took numerous x-rays of his left hand. At this point in time, however, no one yet understood just how dangerous the overexposure to x-rays was — and is — to human tissue....

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