In Feb. 1952, Maclean’s magazine published a feature titled: “The atom bomb that saves lives.” The subsequent pages tell a story of the remarkable team effort and a medical innovation that would have global benefits.
The previous October the world’s first cobalt-60 therapy unit opened at the University of Saskatchewan. This “wonder of the atomic age” was the result of collaboration between government, academia and the private sector. Designed by Dr. Harold Johns of the Physics Department and built by John MacKay, owner of Acme Machine and Electric Co., Saskatoon, it would revolutionize cancer treatment, using radioactive cobalt to attack patient tumors. The team also developed the “most reliable and complete set of isodose tables” then available to physicians.
The groundwork on the project had been laid two decades earlier. Professor E.L. Harrington began researching medical use of radiation in the late 1920s, building the first radon plant in Western Canada at the bequest of the Saskatchewan Cancer Commission. As head of the Department of Physics, Harrington was also instrumental in hiring Harold Johns, who at that time “had no prior interests in radiation physics.” Johns was, however, “enthusiastic, responsive to new ideas and able to absorb quickly the pertinent details and apply them to experimental investigations.”
The 1944 appointment of the research was a joint one, shared by the Physics Department at USask in Saskatoon and the Saskatchewan Cancer Commission in Regina. Shortly after taking the job, Johns and Saskatchewan Cancer Services director Alan Blair visited Premier Tommy Douglas unannounced without an appointment, asking for funds to buy a betatron to support the project. A betatron shields the highly radioactive but stable cobalt 60 in a lead-lined case and was a crucial piece for the revolutionary cancer treatments.
The unscheduled meeting proved to be successful and with the 25-million volt particle accelerator on the way, a special lab was constructed at the back of USask’s Physics Building.
The betatron opened up a fresh experimental field in cancer treatment. On Feb. 4, 1950, the Toronto Star wrote, “They are doing big things in Saskatoon through the use of the betatron, just one of Canada’s atomic machines that are pointing to new discoveries.”
However, there were limitations to the new machine. It was experimental, open to those who had exhausted all alternative treatment. Treatment was limited to surface or near surface tumors. To attack the deep-seated cancers, a new method and machine would be required.
Johns approached the premier again in 1949, seeking funding for a new device. In his words: “we asked for it and we got it.” Douglas personally gave the University of Saskatchewan scientists the “green light” to proceed with the development of the “cobalt bomb.”
The device contained the highly radioactive but stable cobalt 60 in a lead-lined case. At the time, there was only one source for radioactive cobalt 60 in the world, located at Canada’s Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories. The beam line was controlled through an aperture that was opened or closed depending on the dosage needed. Delivered to campus, it was placed in a specially constructed room in the then uncompleted University Hospital.
Once in place, Johns’ team of graduate students, including Sylvia Fedoruk, Edward Epp, Douglas Cormack and Lloyd Bates, assisted with the calibration of the machine. Instead of a patient, the researchers used a tank of water to calculate dosages. Once installed and calibrated, the first patient, a 43-year-old mother of four with cervical cancer, was treated in November 1951. She lived another 47 years.
The machine was a major technological development. It was the birth of cobalt therapy for the treatment of cancer and is still a mainstay for cancer treatment in many third-world countries. Saskatoon’s cobalt unit treated 6,728 patients until it was replaced in 1972.
The cobalt-60 machine is an example of USask's long history of innovation and collaboration. It built on earlier successes and led to future facilities like the linear accelerator and the Canadian Light Source.