History of Nuclear Medicine

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Nuclear medicine is a growing field of research and treatment. In this lesson, we'll explore this idea and talk about the history of nuclear medicine from its origins through today.

Nuclear Medicine

Nuclear. Medicine. Those aren't two words you generally expect to hear together. Actually, we usually think that avoiding nuclear, or radioactive, things is sound medical advice. But, that's not always the case. Nuclear medicine is the use of radioactive material to conduct medical procedures. The most common form of this involves injecting, ingesting, or inhaling radioactive materials, called radiotracers, into the body. These radiotracers give off radioactive signals called gamma rays, which are tracked with special cameras as the radiotracers move through the body. While gamma radiation can be dangerous, the smallest possible dose is given to minimize radiation exposure to the body. You know how an x-ray flashes you with radiation and shows doctors what's going on inside of you? This is the exact opposite. The radiation comes from the radiotracers inside of you, as opposed an external source. Through this, medical professionals can determine a variety of things about your health.

Images produced from use of nuclear medicine
Nuclear medicine

This is cool, but it does beg one question: who in the world thought of this? Whose idea was it to put radiation into a person and track it's movement? Like all things, there's a history here, one that goes beyond just the realm of medicine and into the heart of America's nuclear history.

The Discovery of Radioactivity

Nuclear medicine, or the use of radioactive particles in healthcare, starts with the discovery of those particles. In 1896, the French physicist Henri Becquerel was working with uranium when he noted unidentifiable rays emitting from the material. It was the first time radioactivity has been scientifically described. That term itself came a year later from his friend and colleague, Marie Curie.


Fascination in radioactivity took off quickly, and it wasn't long before people began suggesting that these radioactive waves could have a role in medicine. In fact, Alexander Graham Bell is said to have proposed the use of radioactive materials to treat tumors. In 1913, Frederick Proescher published the first scholarly paper on using radium as a medical treatment, a practice he maintained for years. So, it didn't take long after the discovery of radiation for people to begin experimenting with its use in medicine, even if there was much about it that they did not yet understand. Marie Curie, for example, died of radiation poisoning from constant exposure to the material over her distinguished career.

Technology Improves

As technology quickly increased throughout the early 20th century, new advancements in radiation led to changes in nuclear medicine. In 1932, nuclear physicist Ernest Lawrence created a device that could withstand massive amounts of energy so he could bombard atoms at high speed. The device, called a cyclotron, was the first of its kind and a major step in nuclear science.

The cyclotron made nuclear medicine possible

Ernest's brother, John Lawrence, saw the potential medical applications of this technology. He started using the cyclotron to create radioactive phosphorous, which he injected into mice with leukemia. When the mice showed some improvement, he kept working, but also became concerned about the exposure of people to radioactive elements. In 1935, his experiments on neutrons found that they were far more dangerous than x-rays, resulting in the first safety measures being drawn up for the medical use of radioactive materials.

Lawrence kept experimenting, moving into human trials, and in in the late 1930s was informed that his own mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The two Lawrence brothers managed to get approval to treat her with experimental radiation therapy. She lived another 15 years as a result. The Lawrence brothers, as well as other pioneering scientists, continued looking to radiation as the future of medicine.

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