University of Saskatchewan

September 30, 2014   

The Cancer Bomb: The WDM’s New Exhibit Highlights U of S Nuclear Medicine Innovation

November 29, 2011

SASKATOON, SK – No, it didn’t bomb countries. In 1951, the cobalt-60 “bomb” for treating cancer was developed at the University of Saskatchewan by a dedicated team of scientists and machinists. Since then, thousands of Canadian cobalt-60 units have provided radiation treatment for millions of cancer patients around the world.

The original Cobalt-60 Beam Therapy Unit, also known as the cobalt bomb, is now on display at the Saskatoon Western Development Museum (WDM). The Cancer Bomb, a permanent exhibit sponsored by PotashCorp, honours the 60th anniversary of the first successful treatment of cancer with this machine at University Hospital in Saskatoon.

“As a local company with global reach, we felt it was important to help profile the ground-breaking work of Saskatchewan’s Cobalt-60 team and the hope they have given to people around the world,” said Denita Stann, PotashCorp’s Vice President of Investor and Public Relations.

Joan Champ, the exhibit’s curator, agrees: “The cobalt bomb is a shining example of Saskatchewan’s innovation in health care research – an innovation that had a worldwide impact,” she said. “Dr. Harold Johns and his colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Physics were the first in the world to build a machine that successfully treated a cancer patient with an accurately calibrated dose of cobalt-60 radiation.”

The cobalt bomb was designed by Dr. Johns and built by Saskatoon machinist John MacKay, owner of the Acme Machine and Electric Company. Dr. Johns’ graduate students, including former lieutenant governor Dr. Sylvia Fedoruk, assisted with the design and calibration of the machine.

Radioactive cobalt from the unit attacked tumours that lay deep within the body, thus bringing more cancers within reach of treatment. In November 1951, the first Saskatoon patient, a 43-year-old mother of four, was treated for cervical cancer with a carefully calibrated dose of cobalt-60 radiation from this machine. She lived another 47 years. The cure rate for cervical cancer soon went from 25% to 75%.

By the 1960s, the cobalt-60 machine was standard equipment for radiation therapy world-wide. This cobalt unit treated 6,728 patients until it was replaced with newer technology in 1972. These machines are still in use in many developing countries that do not have the resources for state-of-the-art therapy.

The exhibit opening will be held on Sunday, December 4, 2011 at 1:00 p.m. at the Saskatoon Western Development Museum, 2610 Lorne Avenue South.

Following the formal opening ceremony, the WDM has organized, in partnership with the University of Saskatchewan, a discussion by a panel of experts from the field of nuclear medicine on the legacy of the cobalt bomb at 2:15 p.m.:

Keynote: Dr. David Pantalony, Canada Science and Technology Museum, Ottawa: Made in Saskatchewan: Nuclear Medicine Innovation and Impact With images and artifacts, Dr. Pantalony will briefly trace the origins and far-reaching impact of Saskatchewan’s innovations in nuclear medicine, highlighting how the U of S has become a powerhouse in nuclear medicine.

  • Dr. Paul Babyn, U of S College of Medicine and Saskatoon Health Region, will present a brief overview of PET/CT scanning and progress on plans for clinical and research applications.
  • Dr. Dean Chapman, U of S Canada Research Chair in X-Ray Imaging, will discuss the unparalleled imaging capabilities of the Canadian Light Source for the study and treatment of disease.
  • Dr. John Root, Interim Director of the Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation, will introduce the CCNI which will enable a new generation of pioneers to explore and develop their ideas for the nuclear medical imaging and therapies of the future.

An Information Fair will showcase the work of research and community organizations involved in cancer research.

For more information, please visit: or



Information regarding opening ceremonies:

Janet Olsen
Director of Marketing, WDM
(306) 934-1400

Information regarding panel speakers:

Kathryn Warden
U of S Research Communications
(306) 966-2506

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