In 2018, an estimated 1.7 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer, and most of these patients, at some point, will likely receive chemotherapy as part of their treatment plan. This anti-cancer therapy is not one drug, but a category of drugs: All of them work by entering cells and stopping them from dividing into new cells, with the hope that they will stop tumors from growing until they fall apart and go away. Chemotherapy drugs cause considerable damage to any cells that are actively dividing in the body, leading to severe side effects including nausea, hair loss, and immunosuppression.
For that reason, we often call these drugs poisons. But there’s more truth to this designation than you might think: the oldest class of chemotherapy drugs actually derived from mustard gas, a poison the Germans used as a chemical weapon during World War I.
Ironically, despite the horrors of war, armed conflict has a way of advancing medicine. Gruesome injuries sustained on the battlefield provide opportunities for surgeons to experiment and test new approaches for treatment. During World War II for example, blood poisoning, bronchitis, and other infectious diseases contracted by soldiers created a demand for broad spectrum antibiotics, which encouraged British scientists to find new ways to produce penicillin on a mass scale.
On December 3rd, 1942, under the stands at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field, scientists produced a breakthrough that would change the course of history. There, on that day, physicist Enrico Fermi and his team from the university achieved the primary objective of the top secret Mahattan Project: they initiated the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction, bringing forth the dawn of the nuclear age.