History - The Nuclear Age

Under the administrative direction of Arthur Compton and the scientific direction of Enrico Fermi, the world's first nuclear reactor became operational at the University of Chicago on December 2, 1942. A sculpture by Henry Moore called Nuclear Energy marks the site where the first self-sustaining, controlled nuclear chain reaction was achieved. This is a Registered National Historic Landmark. The secret "Manhattan Project" that eventually became the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was the federal program that funded this work. On at least one occasion, Paul Hodges was seen, in the company of a uniformed armed guard, carrying a tube of uranium across the campus to the radiology department to check some measurements. Radiology faculty from the University of Chicago also staffed the X-ray department at the Los Alamos Laboratory after it had come into full operation.

The Manhattan Project focused attention on the need for basic research in radiobiology to study the effects of ionizing radiation on living systems. Research on new radionuclides and charged-particle accelerators, along with the establishment of a new Argonne Cancer Research Hospital as a part of the University of Chicago ("Billings") Hospital, became part of the AEC's "Atoms for Peace" program for socially-beneficial uses of ionizing radiation. The treatment of cancer was advanced by that program. Lester Skaggs, professor of medical physics in the Department of Radiology, pioneered the development of radiation therapy equipment. He designed a rotating uranium-shielded cobalt-60 radiation therapy unit, which provided a uniquely small beam penumbra. He also designed the first linear electron accelerator radiotherapy device in the United States. Later, Skaggs played a substantial role in developing the cyclotron for medical applications.

The department's research programs in radiotracer chemistry date back to the Manhattan Project. Katherine Lathrop and Paul Harper worked together in 1954 in the newly built Argonne Cancer Research Hospital, and both remain active today as emeritus professors of radiology. Mrs. Lathrop became chairperson of the Hospital's Medical Internal Radiation Dose (MIRD) Committee, which was formed in 1964. The first dose-estimate report from this committee was based on quantitative biodistribution data from one patient who Mrs. Lathrop followed up for 3 years after a normal clinical dose of Se75-selenomethionine. Mrs. Lathrop also served on U.S. Pharmacopoeia and American Standards Institute committees that established specifications for radiopharmaceuticals. Dr. Harper, who began his career as a surgeon at University of Chicago and later received a joint appointment as professor of radiology, developed a commercial method for producing I-125 and, with Mrs. Lathrop and Robert Beck, introduced 99mTc as a radiotracer for brain, liver, thyroid and kidney studies. 99mTc enabled rapid high-quality imaging and played a key role in establishing nuclear medicine as a medical specialty. Dr. Harper was very active in the Society of Nuclear Medicine and received that society's first Paul Aebersold Award for basic-science contributions to the field.

Robert Beck and Alexander Gottschalk also played key roles in advancing nuclear medicine at the University of Chicago -- and, indeed, throughout the world. Beck, now professor in the Department of Radiology and director of the university's Center for Imaging Science, began working part-time at the University's Argonne Cancer Research Hospital as an undergraduate student. His many important contributions to the field, which were recognized by the Society of Nuclear Medicine's Aebersold Award in 1991, include the design of rectilinear scanning devices for radionuclide imaging, theoretical analysis and optimization of focusing collimators, and studies of the trade-off between spatial resolution and sensitivity. Beck also played key roles in creating the department's positron emission tomography (PET) facility -- in collaboration with Malcolm Cooper and Chin-Tu Chen -- and the department's Goldblatt Center for Magnetic Resonance Imaging -- in collaboration with David N. Levin, who serves as director. Gottschalk led nuclear medicine into the modern age by pioneering use of the Anger scintillation ("Gamma") camera in clinical studies. He became chief of the department of radiology's section of nuclear medicine, subsequently was appointed director of the university's Argonne Cancer Research Hospital, and later served as chairman of the radiology department.