Cobalt machine | The betatron, dubbed The Bomb, zaps cancerous tumours
Harold Johns and Allan Blair dropped in unannounced one day in 1946 to visit Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas. They had a proposal.
Johns, a physicist at the University of Saskatchewan who supervised radium and X-ray therapy equipment, and Blair, director of Saskatchewan Cancer Services, were pioneering new radiation therapies. They needed permission to buy a betatron, a high-energy accelerator used to produce gamma rays.
Douglas, later hailed as the “father of medicare,” immediately gave the project his OK.
“(Douglas) never contacted a soul,” said Stuart Houston, author of Steps on the Road to Medicare.
“He didn’t contact his treasurer. He didn’t take consultation with radiation physicists or expert therapists anywhere in the world. He just trusted these two guys implicitly and so they got a tremendous head start.”
What followed was a chain of events fostering medical innovations that remain among the greatest research legacies in the province’s history.
After being a leader in tuberculosis treatment and establishing the country’s first cancer control agency, Saskatchewan health care officials were now making inroads in nuclear medicine.
The betatron was installed at the U of S by 1948 and, after several months of calibrations, was being used in cancer therapy.
Johns’ work in the field continued, this time developing a cancer therapy using the radioactive material cobalt-60. Among his team of graduate students was future Saskatchewan lieutenant-governor Sylvia Fedoruk.
“It was certainly an exciting time for us,” recalled Fedoruk, who ass-isted with the calibration of the machine, determining the proper doses of the material that patients would receive.
Rounding out the group was Sask-atoon machinist John MacKay, owner of the Acme Machine and Electric Co., who helped build the unit that would be dubbed The Cancer Bomb.
“MacKay was one of these instrument makers who could fix anything,” said Houston.
“A farmer would come in with a broken down combine and he’d say, ‘well, this guy’s in the middle of harvest. I’ve got to help him,’ and he’d delay the development of the cobalt (machine) for an hour.”
From MacKay’s shop came a sophisticated piece of medical equipment capable of “bombing” tumours deep within the body and widening the scope of cancer treatment.
The original unit is now part of a permanent exhibit at the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon.
“This is a really interesting example of Saskatchewan innovation that isn’t something we normally think of,” said WDM executive director Joan Champ.
“This is a health-care innovation. We know we’re first in medicare, but this technology is something that’s a lesser-known story that’s had a massive impact worldwide.”
The machine was used in November 1951 to treat its first patient: a 43-year-old mother of four with cervical cancer. She would live another 47 years after treatment.
The original machine would treat more than 6,700 patients before it was replaced with newer technology in 1972.
Fedoruk said she was unaware of the influence her work might have while the machine was designed and calibrated. That changed once the machine was used and the group’s work was published.
“All of a sudden this was a pretty important thing that was happening in our world as students.”
By the 1960s, cobalt-60 machines were being used for radiation therapy worldwide. They still remain in use in some developing countries.
“Having the right people in the right place at the right time in Saskatchewan of all the remote, godforsaken places — relatively speaking in the scientific world — was a bed of good fortune,” said Houston.