Explore a timeline of the history of cancer from 18th century BCE to 2011.
70 – 80 million years ago
Evidence of cancer cells in dinosaur fossils, found in 2003.
4.2 – 3.9 million years ago
The oldest known hominid malignant tumor was found in Homo erectus, or Australopithecus, by Louis Leakey in 1932.
Evidence of cancerous cells found in mummies.
1900 – 1600 BCE
Cancer found in remains of Bronze Age human female skull.
Babylonian code of Hammurabi set standard fee for surgical removal of tumors (ten shekels) and penalties for failure.
The Egyptians blamed cancer on the gods. Ancient Egyptian scrolls describe eight cases of breast tumors treated by cauterization. Stomach cancer treated with boiled barley mixed with dates; cancer of the uterus by a concoction of fresh dates mixed with pig’s brain introduced into the vagina.
1100 – 400 BCE
China Physicians specializing in treating swellings and ulcerations were referred to in The Rites of the Zhou Dynasty.
Indian epic tale, the Ramayana, described treatment with arsenic paste to thwart tumor growth.
Pre-Colombian Inca mummies found to contain lesions suggestive of malignant melanoma.
Greek physician Hippocrates (460–370 BCE), the “Father of Medicine,” believed illness was caused by imbalance of four bodily humors: yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm. He was the first to recognize differences between benign and malignant tumors.
Circa 250 BCE
The first clinical picture of breast cancer, including progression, metastasis, and death, and prognosis approximately ten years after diagnosis,
was described in The Nei Ching, or The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. It gave the first description of tumors and five forms of
therapy: spiritual, pharmacological, diet, acupuncture, and treatment of respiratory diseases.
The Romans found some tumors could be removed by surgery and cauterized, but thought medicine did not work. They noted some tumors grew again.
Greek doctor Claudius Galen (129–216 AD) removed some tumors surgically, but he generally believed that cancer was best left untreated. Galen believed melancholia the chief factor in causing breast cancer, and recommended special diets, exorcism, and topical applications.
500 – 1500
Surgery and cautery were used on smaller tumors. Caustic pastes, usually containing arsenic, were used on more extensive cancers, as well as phlebotomy (blood-letting), diet, herbal medicines, powder of crab, and symbolic charms.
1400 – 1500s
Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) dissected cadavers for artistic and scientific purposes, adding to the knowledge of the human body.
Christopher Columbus returned to Europe from the Americas with the first tobacco leaves and seeds ever seen on the continent. A crew member, Rodrigo de Jerez, was seen smoking and imprisoned by the Inquisition, which believed he was possessed by the devil.
Autopsies were conducted more often and understanding of internal cancers grew.
Zacharias Janssen invented the compound microscope.
Dutch surgeon Adrian Helvetius performed both lumpectomy and mastectomy, claiming this cured breast cancer.
Cancer surgery techniques improved, but lack of anesthesia and antiseptic conditions made surgery a risky choice. German surgeon Wilhelm Fabricius Hildanus (1560–1634) removed enlarged lymph nodes in breast cancer operations, while
Johann Scultetus (1595–1645) performed total mastectomies.
Physician Claude Gendron (1663–1750) concluded that cancer arises locally as a hard, growing mass, untreatable with drugs, and that it must be removed with all its “filaments.”
Professor Hermann Boerhaave (1668–1738) believed inflammation could result in cancer.
17th – 18th centuries
Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723) refined the single lens microscope and was the first to see blood cells and bacteria, aiding the better understanding of cells, blood, and lymphatic system— major steps in improving the understanding of cancer.
Physician Le Dran (1685–1770) first recognized that breast cancer could spread to the regional auxiliary lymph nodes, carrying a poorer prognosis.
Dr. Bernardino Ramazzini (1633–1714), a founder of occupational/industrial medicine, reported the virtual absence of cervical cancer and relatively high incidence of breast cancer in nuns. This observation was an important step toward identifying hormonal factors such as pregnancy and infections related to sexual contact in cancer risk, and was the first indication that lifestyle might affect the development of cancer.
1733 – 1788
Physicians and scientists performed systematic experiments on cancer, leading to oncology as a medical specialty. Two French scientists— physician Jean Astruc and chemist Bernard Peyrilhe— were key to these new investigations.
Giovanni Morgagni performed the first autopsies to relate the patient’s illness to the science of dis- ease, laying the foundation for modern pathology.
Dr. John Hill published “Cautions Against the Immoderate Use of Snuff,” the first report linking tobacco and cancer.
Dr. Percival Pott of Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital in London described cancer in chimney sweeps caused by soot collecting under the scrotum, the first indication that exposure to chemicals in the environment could cause cancer. This research led to many additional studies that identified other occupational carcinogens and thence to public health measures to reduce cancer risk.
First cancer hospital founded in Reims. It was forced to move from the city because people believed cancer was contagious.
Scottish surgeon John Hunter (1728–93) stated that tumors originated in the lymph system and then seeded around the body. He suggested that some cancers might be cured by surgery, especially those that had not invaded nearby tissue.