Uncertainty Medicine: The Development of Radiation Therapy, 1895-1925



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This dissertation offers an overview of the development of x-ray and radium therapy in both the United States and Great Britain in the period from 1896 to 1925. Specific attention is paid to the early work of pioneering radiation therapists, many of whom had not completed a traditional medical education, and to debates within the field over the safety and efficacy of radiation therapy. The project chronicles early experiments with x-ray and radium treatment, and it situates human experimentation within the ethical paradigm of the period—the so-called “Golden Rule”—as well as examining debates amongst radiation therapists over issues of professional identity. X-ray and radium apparatus receive extensive treatment, as does the changing technology of radium production, the market in radon-infused water, and the debate over dosimetry and radiation exposure. Radiation therapy was an interesting example of a new technology that presented both powerful therapeutic potential and significant risks for patients. Unfortunately, early radiation therapists were often guilty of downplaying both the dangers of exposure and the shortcomings of their equipment. That refusal to recognize danger led to tremendous human suffering for both therapists and patients.



History of Medicine, History of technology, Radiation