Nuclear Medicine and the University of Saskatchewan – Timeline

* Prepared by University of Saskatchewan Archives and Research Communications with assistance from Dr. Stuart Houston, U of S Professor Emeritus of Medical Imaging and Radiology

Thanks to a history of excellence in medical physics and accelerator technology at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan has long been a leader in cancer research and treatment.

Sources and Further Reading

The Cancer Bomb Exhibit

View the exhibition at the Western Development Museum.

 

Read the History

The Growth of Nuclear Medicine by Sylvia Fedoruk for “50 Years of Nuclear Fission in Review”, 1989.

Saskatchewan's Role in Radiotherapy Research by Stuart Houston and Sylvia Fedoruk in the Canadian Medical Association Journal 132 (April 1985).

Ertle Harrington joins U of S physics department; appointed head in 1924. Later called Canada’s “first medical physicist.”

Telegram reporting that Ertle Harrington had accepted the university's appointment

Telegram reporting that Ertle Harrington had accepted the university's appointment

Credit: University Archives, President's Office records, RG 2001.1, file B8

Following a Saskatchewan Medical Association resolution endorsing establishment of a radium institute, President Walter Murray writes to Saskatchewan Premier Charles Dunning, offering the expertise and facilities of the U of S for radium treatment of cancer. Dunning replied that tuberculosis was a greater health priority; and that “the possibility of successful use of radiation in any large way in the treatment of disease has not been fully demonstrated.”

“If at any time it is deemed wise to erect in the Province a radium institute for the treatment of cancer patients, it could be done at the University or elsewhere … I think there is no doubt that the University is the proper place to handle the radium.” – President Walter Murray, 1922

President Walter Murray

President Walter Murray, ca. 1924

Credit: University Archives, Photograph Collection, A 5539

Prof. Ertle Harrington introduces class in medical physics, an innovation at the time. “Particular attention will be paid to the physical basis underlying those applications of physics which are of special importance and interest to students and practitioners of medicine.”

Physics Building, ca. 1930

Physics Building, ca. 1930

Credit: University Archives, Photograph Collection, A-663

Saskatchewan Medical Association establishes committee to provide advice to government about cancer therapy; Prof. Ertle Harrington only non-medical member of committee.

Prof. Ertle Harrington

Prof. Ertle Harrington

Credit: University Archives, Photograph Collection, A-3191

Following establishment of Saskatchewan Cancer Commission in 1930 (the first cancer control agency in Canada), first radon plant in Western Canada designed and constructed by Ertle Harrington. Housed at the physics department, provided radium seeds for cancer clinics in Saskatchewan and across Western Canada until 1962.

“Dr. E.L. Harrington … had a special genius for the construction of physical apparatus. … He built the first radon plant in Western Canada, at the request of the Saskatchewan Cancer Commission, and exercising his unusual skill as a glass-blower constructed himself all the extensive glass units required, including many novel features which added to the efficiency of the plant.”
– Carlyle King, The First Fifty: Teaching, Research and Public Service at the University of Saskatchewan, 1909-1959 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1959).

Physics Building, shown in 1953.

Physics Building, shown in 1953. The Physics Annex, the wooden structures on the left, was the first home of the betatron

Credit: University Archives, Photograph Collection, A-666

Harold Johns jointly appointed to U of S physics department and the Saskatchewan Cancer Commission; supervised radium and X-ray therapy equipment for Saskatchewan’s two cancer clinics, becoming Canada’s “first full-time cancer physicist.” He came to be known as “the father of medical physics in Canada.”

“Dr. Johns took great strides in the fight against cancer. He invented and developed the Cobalt-60 machine which had an immediate impact on the cancer survival rate. Prior to the Cobalt-60, cancer therapy through radiation could only get to superficial tumors, but now this treatment could treat tumors that were deep-set and difficult to access.”
– Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, Citation for posthumous induction of Dr. Harold Johns, 1998.

Harold Johns speaking

Harold Johns speaking

Credit: University Archives, Harold Johns Collection

Harold Johns and Allan Blair, Director of Saskatchewan Cancer Services, visit Premier Tommy Douglas without an appointment to seek permission to purchase a betatron (a high-energy accelerator) to treat cancer patients. Douglas gives them “virtual carte blanche to proceed – without consulting his cabinet, the university, or even medical experts.”

“Well, it was easy. I had complete confidence in the knowledge and integrity possessed by both men. They assured me that high voltage radiotherapy offered great promise in the treatment of cancer. Dr. Allan Blair had come from Toronto to head up the leading cancer agency in North America. And Harold Johns!

“Why, when I attended Brandon College, [his father] was my mathematics teacher and my favorite professor. … So, with close personal knowledge of both men and my complete faith in their integrity, my permission did not seem to me to be a gamble at all.”

- Former Premier Tommy Douglas, on why he gave virtual “carte blanche” for the purchase of the betatron, as related to Stuart Houston. Quoted in Steps on the Road to Medicare and Tommy’s Team.

Tommy Douglas in 1944

Tommy Douglas in 1944

Credit: Saskatchewan Archives Board, R-A3421

In May, Harold Johns, Robert Haslam and Leon Katz travel to Milwaukee to inspect the betatron that had been built for Saskatchewan.

In August, University of Saskatchewan installs first betatron in Canada, located in Physics Annex—the world’s first betatron used for a cancer treatment program.

http://scaa.sk.ca/gallery/uofs_events/articles/1948.php

The betatron unit arriving by train

The betatron unit arriving by train

Credit: University Archives, A-3594

After six or seven months of calibration, first patient receives cancer therapy using the betatron, on 29 March 1949 – beginning the world’s first “concerted” clinical use of the betatron. University of Saskatchewan team recognized as world’s leading experts in calibration of betatrons.

“This was an initiative that was taken on by Atomic Energy of Canada to commercially build a (cobalt) unit. Dr. Johns wanted to build his own unit and beat the fellas to the job, beat the other out.”
– Sylvia Fedoruk, U of S interview, November 2011

Betatron – preparing a cancer patient for treatment

Betatron – preparing a cancer patient for treatment

Credit: University Archives, Photograph Collection, A-2273

World’s first calibrated Cobalt-60 cancer therapy unit established at the University of Saskatchewan; installed at University Hospital (G Wing) as construction continued. The calibration work was done by Sylvia Fedoruk through rigorous depth dose measurements (the subject of her M.A. thesis).

After 11 weeks of calibration, world’s first patient treated on 8 November 1951. Cured of her apparently incurable cancer, she would live to the age of 90, forty-seven years later.

http://scaa.sk.ca/gallery/uofs_events/articles/1951.php

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix runs an editorial on March 7th, 1951 entitled The Cobalt "Bomb".

“We hope Messrs. Truman, Stalin, Peron et al won’t think someone is trying to steal their thunder, but we think they ought to know theirs is not the only atomic race going on in the world. Another has been declared by the London Free Press which claims editorially ‘the world’s first cobalt bomb for … the Ontario city.

“With all due respect to the preservation of national peace and goodwill, that is a boast which this newspaper cannot allow to go unchallenged – especially since the Free Press is brazen enough to remark that a cobalt bomb ‘is also being installed at Saskatoon, Sask.’ One is indeed. Or, to be more accurate, one has been installed.”
– Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, editorial, 7 November 1951 (quoted in Steps on the Road to Medicare, p. 120)

A technician and patient with the Cobalt-60 unit

A technician and patient with the Cobalt-60 unit

Credit: University Archives, Photograph Collection, A-3519

Installation of the Cobalt-60

Installation of the Cobalt-60 unit in the G Wing of the University Hospital

Credit: University Archives, Harold Johns Collection

Betatron Building constructed next to Physics Building; betatron relocated.

Moving the betatron into the new Betatron Building

Moving the betatron into the new Betatron Building

Credit: University Archives, Harold Johns Collection

First publication on cobalt unit measurements appears in the prestigious journal Nature, by Harold Johns, Lloyd Bates, Ed Epp, Douglas Cormack, Sylvia Fedoruk (all from Saskatchewan), with three U of S physics graduates A. Morrison, W.R. Dixon and C. Garrett working at the National Research Council in Ottawa.

“The most notable accomplishment was a table of X-ray dosage rates at various depths in human tissues, ranging from x-radiation by conventional hospital machines to those by the cobalt 60 unit and the betatron. It was accepted by the British Institute of Radiology as the standard reference table for radiation dosimetry. It is still basic to all subsequent dosage tables.”
– Balfour Currie, U of S physics department 1910-1976

Sylvia Fedoruk treating a patient

Sylvia Fedoruk treating a patient

Credit: University Archives, Harold Johns Collection

Maclean’s magazine runs a story on the U of S cobalt unit with headline “The Atom Bomb That Saves Lives”, picking up on earlier references to “the cobalt bomb.”

John MacKay

John MacKay under the Cobalt-60 unit built in his machine shop.

Credit: University Archives, Harold Johns Collection

The first of four editions of The Physics of Radiation Therapy, by Harold Johns, is published – for two decades (in later editions under the title The Physics of Radiology) the world’s foremost text of medical radiation physics, translated into Spanish, Russian and Chinese.

Harold Johns, ca. 1950s

Harold Johns, ca. 1950s

Credit: University Archives, Photograph Collection, A-2720

The Physics of Radiation Therapy

Cover of first edition of The Physics of Radiation Therapy

Credit: University Archives, Harold Johns Collection

Official opening of the University Hospital, the first home of the Saskatoon Cancer Clinic.

Premier Tommy Douglas presiding at the official opening of the University Hospital

Premier Tommy Douglas presiding at the official opening of the University Hospital

Credit: University Archives, Photograph Collection, A-2161

The Linear Accelerator Laboratory is opened on campus under the leadership of Leon Katz. Later called Saskatchewan Accelerator Laboratory, providing support for radiology, chemistry and sub-atomic physics research which paved the way for the CLS and Plasma Physics Laboratory.

Official opening of the Linear Accelerator

Official opening of the Linear Accelerator

Credit: University Archives, A-8643

New therapeutic radiology clinic opened at University Hospital – featuring a Betatron 42, the only installation of its kind in Canada. Original Cobalt-60 unit decommissioned, after treating 6,728 patients in 21 years.

“The new radio-therapy department includes a betatron suite, two cobalt rooms and one high-voltage therapy room, completely underground to protect against possible dangers of radiation. Patients are received and treated in cheerfully decorated rooms with carpets on the floor, paintings on the walls and piped-in music for relaxation.”
– “New cancer facility opened,” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, 5 December 1972

Betatron 42 unit in action

Betatron 42 unit in action

Credit: University Archives, Harold Johns Collection

Linear Accelerator Laboratory, under directorship of Henry Caplan, receives federal grant for a major upgrade – construction of Pulse Stretcher Ring EROS (Electron Ring of Saskatchewan). This created “large duty factor electron beams that allowed nuclear physics experiments not before possible.” Renamed the Saskatchewan Accelerator Laboratory, the lab became a “mainstay of the [physics] department’s experimental subatomic physics research program and became an international user facility.”

Saskatchewan Accelerator Laboratory, 1986

Saskatchewan Accelerator Laboratory, 1986

Credit: University Archives, Saskatchewan Accelerator Laboratory files, accn. 2009-132

Eros print

''Eros'' print, showing the Greek god, produced for the Linear Accelerator Laboratory, 1976

Credit: University Archives, Saskatchewan Accelerator Laboratory files, accn. 2009-132

New building for Saskatoon Cancer Centre opened on campus.

Waiting room of the new cancer clinic

Waiting room of the new cancer clinic, with the original Cobalt-60 unit mounted on the ceiling

Credit: University Archives, Photograph Collection, A-5187

University of Saskatchewan selected to host the Canadian Light Source, Canada’s only synchrotron.

Synchrotron building under construction, 2000

Synchrotron building under construction, 2000

Credit: University Archives, Campus Image Bank Photographs, DMT-1111

Prime Minister Jean Chretien opens the $174-million Canadian Light Source. Made-in-Saskatchewan design is one of the most efficient, compact and advanced in the world, and uses the linear accelerator as an injector. http://www.usask.ca/research/news/read.php?id=111

Prime Minister Jean Chretien, U of S Pres. Peter MacKinnon and CLS Director Michael Bancroft

Prime Minister Jean Chretien, U of S Pres. Peter MacKinnon and CLS Director Michael Bancroft.

Credit: Office of Communications, University of Saskatchewan

First images from the unique-in-North America Bio-Medical Imaging and Therapy Beamline (BMIT) at the Canadian Light Source. BMIT researchers plan work on delivery of precise beams of high energy X-rays for cancer treatment.
http://www.physorg.com/news149256035.html

Mouse image

Mouse image (right) reveals soft tissues such as the lungs (dark triangular shape) and muscles that are obscure in conventional X-ray radiograph.

Credit: D. Chapman, University of Saskatchewan

“I’m particularly proud of the bone work we’ve done, seeing how the contrast we see in the images relates to the bone’s internal structure. This work is leading to one of our first human applications: assessing bone strength and internal structure using DEI to understand and assess things like osteoporosis.”
– Dean Chapman, Canada Research Chair in X-Ray Imaging, in “Medical Beamline Celebrates First Year of Scientific Results”, Dec. 2009

In January, 2011, the CLS at the University of Saskatchewan awarded $12 million from the federal and provincial governments to build a new linear accelerator for research into the production of isotopes for medical diagnosis and treatment. Aim is to safely, cheaply and reliably produce medical isotopes without using a nuclear reactor or weapons-grade uranium.


Premier Brad Wall announces (in March) $30 million to establish U of S research centre that will re-establish the province as an international leader in nuclear science and nuclear medicine (news release).

The Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation launched in the fall of 2011 to place Saskatchewan among global leaders in nuclear research, development and training. It will also oversee a new cyclotron which will be used for research, training and production of specific medical isotopes for use in the province’s first PET-CT scanner for cancer treatment.

“This cyclotron will enable the production of the isotopes needed to provide the PET-CT program to Saskatchewan patients. This is a critical partnership that marries the science and technology of innovation with the real-time delivery of health service.”
– Saskatchewan Innovation Minister Rob Norris, at the cyclotron and PET-CT scanner funding announcement, March 4, 2011

The Honourable Gerry Ritz

The Honourable Gerry Ritz announces federal funding for a cyclotron at the U of S.

Credit: David Stobbe