The bomb that saves lives

This article was originally written and submitted as part of a Canada 150 Project, the Innovation Storybook, to crowdsource stories of Canadian innovation with partners across Canada. The content has since been migrated to Ingenium’s Channel, a digital hub featuring curated content related to science, technology and innovation.

Harold Elford Johns asked the NRC to start creating Cobalt-60 isotopes to treat cancer.

Bryson Masse

Algonquin College Journalism Program

In 2009, Ontario’s Chalk River nuclear laboratory closed for maintenance. This meant that the largest producer of medical isotopes in the world was turned off and supply plummeted, causing significant delays in medical treatments. This event underscored how important Canada’s role in nuclear medicine has been ever since physicist Dr. Harold Elford Johns asked the National Research Council to start creating Cobalt-60 isotopes in 1949. Cobalt-60 is a radioactive isotope used by doctors to fight tumors and cancers that are located deep in the body.

Born in Chengdu, China, Johns and his parents later resettled in Hamilton, Ontario. Johns earned his PhD in physics from the University of Toronto in 1939, and began training pilots during World War II. He became an early expert in radiography and was invited to the University of Saskatchewan to work with Dr. Ertle Harrington.

Johns started the medical physics group at the Saskatchewan Cancer Commission and his research led to the first apparatus that delivers doses of the radiation created by the isotope. The gamma rays reach further into the body then contemporary cancer treatments. The method attacks cancerous cells while leaving healthy cells safe. In the 1950s’ Maclean’s dubbed the technology a “cobalt bomb.”

His advances allowed Tommy Douglas, father of Canada’s medicare system, to announce free cancer treatments for residents who had lived in Saskatchewan for at least three months. Johns’ technology has been credited with saving over seven million lives. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada and was inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in 2000.

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