Birth of nuclear medicine: Dec. 24, 1936

Dr. John Lawrence, long interested in how radiation can be used in medicine, introduces a new approach to fighting cancer when he uses a radioactive isotope of phosphorus to treat a 28-year-old woman with leukemia.

Lawrence was part of a research team with his older brother, Ernest, at the Donner Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.  A few years earlier, the elder Lawrence brother had invented the cyclotron, a particle accelerator that creates radioactive isotopes. Together, the brothers were leaders in research in nuclear radiation, both in how it harms the human body, but also how it could  be used to treat and diagnose diseases.

Radioactive isotopes, for instance, were found to be effective in diagnosing and treating certain bone marrow and blood disorders. Radiation therapy didn't prove that effective in treating cancer, but it opened a new field of medicine, one that has become known as radiology.

John Lawrence was so confident in his research that he would often begin his lectures by serving an audience member a radiosodium “cocktail,” then use a Geiger counter to show the movement of the isotope through the person's bloodstream.

Lawrence was a member of the American delegation to the 1955 Geneva conference on peaceful uses of atomic power, In 1983, the U.S. Department of Energy presented him with the Enrico Fermi Award for his “pioneering work and continuing leadership in nuclear medicine.” He is still considered the "Father of Nuclear Medicine."

He died of a stroke in 1991.

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