The same physical qualities that make radiation dangerous to humans make it a valuable therapeutic agent — it can kill cancerous cells as well as healthy ones. The therapeutic challenge is to focus the right amount of the right kind of radiation on the diseased cells, while sparing the surrounding healthy tissue. Post-World War II research, much of which involved radionuclides, helped make radiation treatments more locally precise and the dosage safer and more accurate.
This advertisement, which pictures a super- voltage x-ray machine, demonstrates the popularity of the “atomic” label in the mid-1950s. Although x-rays were used to treat cancer, as were the radioisotopes of cobalt and cesium, high- energy x-ray machines were first developed before World War II and owed little to the nation’s development of atomic energy.
Patients entering “Uranium Tunnel”, Lone Rock, Wisconsin, 1954.
The therapeutic effects of radioactivity were applied outside the scientific community as well. In 1954, Lone Rock farmer Kenneth Crook opened a storefront and began charging the public $1.00 an hour to sit on uranium-filled cushions. Although Crook claimed his popular “uranium tunnel” was meant only to entertain and educate, the State of Wisconsin charged him with practicing medicine without a license and closed all the state’s uranium “cures” in 1955.
Cobalt-60 radiotherapy machine Used at Wisconsin General Hospital, Madison, ca. 1960.
Originally developed in 1951, the telecobalt machine used the high-energy gamma rays emitted by cobalt-60 to treat cancer. Cobalt-60 machines were able to reach deeper tumors with less skin dosage than standard x-ray machines. Courtesy of Department of Medical Physics, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Professor John Cameron, holding pellet of lithium fluoride, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1962.
Cameron helped develop thermoluminescent dosimetry, a technique for measuring therapeutic doses of radiation. A small pellet of lithium fluoride, which absorbs energy from radiation and emits it as visible light when later heated, is placed next to an area to be treated with radiation. By measuring the amount of light given off by the pellet, doctors can tell exactly how much radiation the patient has received at the intended point of treatment. Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives.
R-meter Made by Victoreen Instrument Company, Cleveland, Ohio, 1947.
This instrument measured the intensity of radiation from high-energy x-ray or cobalt-60 radiotherapy machines so that accurate doses of radiation could be administered. Courtesy of Department of Medical Physics, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Set of collimators, ca. 1955.
A collimator is a device that defines and limits a field of radiation. These metal caps, each with an opening of a different size and shape, were placed over a small metal cylinder of radioactive strontium-90, which was then applied directly to a diseased eyeball for the treatment of tumors. Courtesy of Department of Medical Physics, University of Wisconsin-Madison.