Cancer: Researching the History of a Malady

By Rebecca C. Warlow

Almost every individual has been touched by a cancer diagnosis, whether as a patient, or as a family member or friend of a patient.  A new documentary based on Siddhartha Mukherjee’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, accepts this fact as one point of departure in the history of cancer it presents, covering the topic from its first documented diagnoses in Egypt centuries ago through to modern times, and our state-of-the-art science to understand and control it.

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) is pleased to have been able to contribute film and photographs from its historical collections to this new documentary, which airs tonight on PBS and through this Wednesday, April 1. The film is produced by Ken Burns and directed by Barak Goodman, in partnership with Washington, DC’s public broadcasting station WETA. The NLM’s contribution joins those of NIH Director Francis Collins, NCI Director Harold Varmus, and NCI Center for Cancer Research’s Steven Rosenberg, and clinicians from several NCI-designated cancer centers, who provided scientific guidance and interviews for this film.

The NLM’s historical collections related to cancer span the centuries and the scope of scientific research related to the disease.  The collection includes materials documenting early concepts of cancer, America’s national response to the disease, public health campaigns, and many other aspects. Researchers whose work informed the documentary consulted these items, and learned about their stories, among many others:

Percivall Pott

Seated portrait

Percivall Pott (1714–1788)
NLM# B026993

Percivall Pott was a well-known surgeon in London in the mid to late 1700s.  In addition to his cancer discovery, he also was known for his book, A Treatise on Ruptures, in which he disputed current treatments for hernias, and for identifying a disease called Pott disease which causes the vertebrae to soften.  In 1775 Percival Pott became the first person to make a connection between cancer and environmental factors when he recognized the high incidence of cancer among chimney sweeps who regularly were exposed to soot.

The National Cancer Institute

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) was established in 1937 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Cancer Institute Act.  The act set an ambitious mission for the NCI:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That for the purposes of conducting researches, investigations, experiments, and studies relating to the cause, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer; assisting and fostering similar research activities by other agencies, public and private; and promoting the coordination of all such researches and activities and the useful application of their results, with a view to the development and prompt widespread use of the most effective methods of prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer, there is hereby established in the Public Health Service a division which shall be known as the National Cancer Institute (hereinafter referred to as the “Institute”).

A large, diverse group of people, many in lab coats, fit on the steps of a large building.

NCI staff on Building 6 steps
National Library of Medicine #A017823

A few years later, President Roosevelt would dedicate the new building of the NCI seen in the undated staff photograph above and say about the Institute, “It is promoting and stimulating cancer research throughout the nation; it is bringing to the people of the nation a message of hope because many forms of the disease are not only curable but even preventable.”

Medical Instruction with Film

A still from a film showing a man lying in a large medical machine.

Radiation Therapy in the Management of Cancer, 1970

Research into the causes, treatments, and possible cures for cancer has been ongoing for centuries.  The 1970 film Radiation Therapy for the Management of Cancer features two case studies to illustrate the use of radiation to treat cancer.  The film shows how doctors plan radiation therapy using an isodose chart—a chart which was used to diagram the distribution of the radiation to target a patient’s cancer.  Also seen is the administration of radiation to the patients featured in both case studies.

Public Health Campaigns

Cancer prevention and related campaigns such as these published by the American Lung Association use celebrities such as Brooke Shields, Joan Lunden, and Cybill Sheppard to discourage unhealthy activities, such as smoking, that may cause cancer.

In addition to the items mentioned here and featured in the documentary, the History of Medicine Division at NLM invites you to explore our collections related to cancer:

Contact us for more information at (301) 402-8878 or by email at hmdref@nlm.nih.gov.

While the documentary is airing, the National Cancer Institute and cancer center partners will be live-tweeting cancer-related topics mentioned during the documentary—in the moment in which they are mentioned.  Follow the #CancerFilm on Twitter and join in.  For example, when chemotherapy is mentioned in the film, related information from several expert institutions tagged with the #CancerFilm will be tweeted. More information and a public interactive site is available at http://cancerfilms.org/.  Relevant information related to topics discussed in the film are featured on www.cancer.gov.

Portrait of Rebecca Warlow.Rebecca C. Warlow is Head of Images and Archives in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.