The Brief History of Radiation Oncology

*Note: The following is an adaptation of various excerpts from the book The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

Wilhelm Röntgen

October 1895

  • Worked with electron tube, a vacuum tube that shot electrons from one electrode to another.
  • His wife, Anna, put her hand in front of a leaking electron tube. The rays penetrated her hand and left a silhouette of her finger bones and wedding ring on a barium screen.
  • Röntgen called this form of light “x-rays”.

Henri Becquerel


  • Discovered that natural materials (uranium) autonomously emit their own invisible rays, similar to x-rays.

Pierre & Marie Curie


  • Used miniscule quartz crystals to craft an instrument called an electrometer, capable of quantifying exquisitely small doses of energy.


  • Discovered Radium in a waste ore called pitchblende, a black sludge harvested from the forests of the Czech Republic.
  • Radium, named after the Latin word for “light”, could be used as a means of depositing energy deep into tissues.
  • In the hunt for purer and purer radioactivity, Marie’s skin in her palm had begun to chafe and peel off in blackened layers, as if the tissues had been burnt from the inside.
  • A few milligrams of radium left in a vial in Pierre’s pocket scorched through the heavy tweed of his waistcoat and left a permanent scar on his chest.
  • What we know how: Radium attacks DNA. X-rays can shatter strands of DNA or generate toxic chemicals that corrode DNA. Cells respond to this damage by dying or ceasing to divide. X-rays, thus, preferentially kill the most rapidly proliferating cells in the body (skin, nails, gums, blood, etc.).

Emil Grubbe


  • Had the inspired notion of using x-rays to treat cancer.
  • As a 21-year-old Chicago medical student, Grubbe began to bombard one of his breast cancer patients with radiation using an improved x-ray tube.
  • He irradiated her cancer every night for 18 consecutive days.
  • The tumor in her breast ulcerated, tightened, and shrank, producing the first documented local response in the history of x-ray therapy.

Limitations of Radiation Therapy

  • Of limited use for cancers that had metastasized.
  • Radiation itself produces cancers, stemming from its activity as a mutagen.

Death of the Pioneers

July 4, 1934

  • Marie Curie died of leukemia at the age of 67.


  • Emil Grubbe’s fingers were amputated to remove necrotic tissue and gangrenous bones.


  • Grubbe died of multiple forms of cancer at the age of 85.


  1. Mukherjee, Siddhartha. “The emperor of all maladies.” London: Fourth (2011): 9-105.
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