August 27: First Chemotherapy Treatment in the United States

 

On this day in Connecticut history, in 1942, physicians at Yale University made medical history as they administered the first use of intravenous chemotherapy as a cancer treatment in the United States.  This medical milestone was the culmination of years of research, including top-secret experiments involving mustard gas that a handful of Yale doctors conducted for the U.S. military during World War I and World War II.  After discovering that one of the side effects of nitrogen mustard gas was the reduction of cancerous tumors in mice, researchers began investigating the possibility of using a similar chemical compound to treat cancer in humans.

In 1941, a patient known to history only as “J.D.” was admitted to Yale Medical Center in New Haven with a severe case of lymphosarcoma and began undergoing standard cancer treatments, which then consisted of surgical removal and radiation therapy.  While the patient initially showed signs of improvement, the cancer quickly staged an aggressive comeback; when J.D. was readmitted in August of the following year, he could barely move his head owing to the size of his tumors.  With a grim prognosis, the 47-year-old J.D. agreed to undergo a new, experimental treatment, and on the morning of August 27, 1942, Yale physicians began the first chemotherapy regimen for a cancer patient in the United States.  The serious of intravenous treatments he received extended his life for an additional three months, much longer than expected upon his admittance.

Until recently, the chemical compound the doctors used was referred to only as “Substance X” per orders of the federal government, which sought to censor any possible connection between J.D’s treatment and the studies it had funded regarding nitrogen mustard gas.  Because of this heavy censorship, it took researchers over sixty years to verify the exact details of the first chemo treatment in the U.S., including the date and patient identity.  The results of J.D.’s pioneering chemotherapy treatment were ground-breaking: While doctors observed a dramatic decrease in the patient’s tumors, they also noted severe side effects like a decrease in bone marrow density and the risk of developing chemo-resistant tumors — all of which are now well accounted for in modern-day chemotherapy treatments.  Today, chemotherapy is one of the most universally-prescribed treatments for cancer around the world.  A life-saving breakthrough that led to the birth of modern medical oncology, hidden under a cloud of secrecy for decades, took place in New Haven on this day in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Helen Dodson, “Setting the Record Straight: The Birth of Chemotherapy at Yale,” Yale University News

Panos Christakis, “The Birth of Chemotherapy at Yale [Introduction],” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine

History and Heritage: Milestones,” Yale-New Haven Hospital