An artists portait of Susan Coley Nauts seated in front of a bookshelf.

Helen Coley Nauts: Advocate for Immunotherapy

By Douglas Atkins

Foraml photogravure portrait with facsimile autograph.
William Bradley Coley, in Medical World: Biographical Sketches of Notable Physicians and Surgeons of the Present, 1911
National Library of Medicine

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.

8 comments

  1. Thank you for this really interesting article. Always helpful to know the history behind new and emerging health technologies.

    1. And thank you for reading, Leigh-Ann. Immunology in general regarding resistance to diseases like small pox and measles was documented by Persian Physician Rhazes (880-932 A.D.) Edward Jenner (1749-1823) considered the father of immunology was able to demonstrate in the 1790’s that exposure to one condition could grant protection or immunity following re-exposure. William Coley (1862-1936) considered the father of cancer immunology was likely influenced by such previous discoveries. The idea of immunotherapy is rather old. But, the practice of immunotherapy relative to cancer is being rediscovered which is what makes it, in a sense, new.

  2. Wonderful article bringing more light to a very important field of cancer research. Helen Coley Nauts would be very pleased with your article and that all her and her father’s efforts are finally being recognized.

    1. Many thanks for your contributions to this blog piece, Susan. About the only image we had previously of Helen Lancaster Coley was when she was a little girl, approximately three years of age, sitting on her 40 plus year old Father’s lap from about 1910. Now because of your efforts the National Library of Medicine can demonstrate yet another image of Helen Coley Nauts as a more mature woman from a painting you composed of her in 1996. Virtually indistinguishable from a photograph. I hope that readers are able to take away from this blog piece that even today, biomedical discoveries by themselves may not always be enough relative to translating into clinical applications. Successful implementation clinically requires consistent advocacy and convincing others to think and act outside of convention.

  3. Interesting article about an important medical pioneer. What exactly do you mean by “ran afoul of the medical establishment”?

    1. I’m glad you found the piece interesting, Dr. Shapiro. I think it is important to know that during Coley’s time there were powerful institutions and persons in place with therefore greater influence to guide the research and practice of cancer therapy for many years to come. By utilizing fairly inexpensive procedures which seemed more in keeping with human biology (and fewer side effects) Coley conflicted with elements of the medical establishment of his time. Establishment practices inclined to advocate for patentable, toxic and invasive protocols to include radiation and, decades later, chemotherapy. To be fair, these sorts of toxic methodologies seemed more effective at ridding the body of cancer in many instances than Coley’s essentially bio-therapeutic techniques. However chemo therapy and radiation in the practice of oncology still tend to compromise the very immune system that William Coley championed.

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