Helen Coley Nauts: Advocate for Immunotherapy

By Douglas Atkins

Helen Coley Nauts (1907–2001) was the daughter of a prominent physician and surgeon whom many consider to be the Father of Immunotherapy for cancer, Dr. William Bradley Coley (1862–1936). Dr. Coley treated hundreds of cancer patients in his career, initially by utilizing live bacterial toxins, which in turn activated an immune response against certain types of the disease, and later with attenuated bacteria weakened by way of heat and filtration. According to the journal Nature from May of 1992, William Coley had a remarkable degree of success with his type of cancer immunotherapy particularly with regard to select types of malignancies. But William Coley ran afoul of the medical establishment, which had difficulty reproducing his results and did not believe his treatments were effective. Even as late as 1965, a full twenty-nine years following his death, the American Cancer Society went so far as to criticize his techniques in their journal Cancer. But Dr. Coley’s immunotherapeutic approach did not become buried in history, in large part because of the work of his daughter.

Though Helen Coley Nauts had neither academic nor medical degrees, she was able to raise considerable awareness of her father’s work through her disciplined efforts at self-education, and a willingness to communicate and collaborate with others. Her advocacy began in earnest when, upon attempting a biography of her father, she discovered the documentation of his efforts at cancer immunotherapy. She pored over his data for years and compiled a series of case histories demonstrating the efficacy of his methods. She was also the primary author of at least one published article with her brother, surgeon Dr. Bradley Lancaster Coley, on the topic of treating malignant tumors with bacterial toxins, which appeared in the journal Cancer Research in 1946.

An artists portait of Helen Coley Nauts seated in front of a bookshelf with a photo of her father beside her.

Helen Coley Nauts, Founder of Cancer Research Institute
Courtesy Cancer Research Institute, Oil on Canvas by Susan Boone Durkee

Though powerful figures in the field of oncology dismissed her efforts, citing her lack of medical credentials, Helen Coley Nauts was undaunted in her enthusiasm for and advocacy of her father’s techniques. From her perspective, it was egotistical and self-serving for mainstream cancer specialists to reject Dr. Coley’s more benign immunotherapy while embracing far more toxic and invasive cancer treatments. She felt that: “Perhaps if someone were really interested in the problem, they would go over the material, and be fired up to do the job themselves. Of course it would be a little hard to admit that the idea and the material had been there for 55 years, without anyone being ready to dig into it hard. Perhaps that is what holds back any comprehensive study now.” She was a tireless advocate, however, not for her father’s specific medicinal formulations, but for a cancer research path that investigated harnessing the body’s immune system rather than one that sought chemicals and radiation to attack the disease. After over a decade of correspondence and lobbying with cancer researchers and institutions,  Helen Coley Nauts founded the New York Cancer Research Institute in 1953 where she served as its executive director and remained actively involved until her death on January 2, 2001. A photograph of her portrait, commissioned by the Cancer Research Institute, was recently donated to the NLM prints and photographs collection.

Today cancer immunotherapy is often presented as an exciting and new area of cancer research and practice. However, similar to surgery, immunotherapy in the treatment of cancer is actually older than both radiation and chemotherapy. Contemporary biomedical research is a complex endeavor, an industry requiring expensive and sophisticated equipment, long term clinical trials, competition for funding, and extensive regulation.  New ideas need advocacy and evidence to survive and immunotherapy for cancer has survived and flourished. Today, some immunotherapies are available in the form of drugs though they are still very expensive. Helen Coley Nauts was an untiring advocate whose support of her father’s work and advocacy for further research have made a difference.  Her father’s labor revealed quite a bit of promise and she knew it.

An informal indoor portrait.Douglas Atkins is a technician for the Prints & Photographs collection in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.