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Cancer fighter got its start at Yale New Haven Hospital


New Haven Hospital (now called Yale New Haven Hospital) was the site of a number of firsts in medicine, including the first use of chemotherapy to treat cancer patients, in 1942. Photo courtesy of the YNHH Archives

It’s not uncommon in medicine to use potentially harmful substances in helpful ways, and chemotherapy is a prime example.

What was previously a weapon was transformed into this invaluable tool for cancer treatment at Yale New Haven Hospital (previously called New Haven Hospital) 75 years ago.

It started during World War II, when Yale School of Medicine researchers Alfred Gilman and Louis Goodman became part of a secret U.S. government effort to find ways to treat victims of chemical warfare and also develop chemical agents the Allies could use in counter-attacks. The researchers focused on nitrogen mustard – commonly called mustard gas – which the Germans had used during World War I. As so often happens in research, the scientists’ study yielded an unexpected result; they discovered the nitrogen mustard selectively killed fast-growing cells.

Realizing the chemical’s potential in treating the out-of-control cell growth that characterizes cancer, Gilman and Goodman tested nitrogen mustard on mice. It worked, shrinking the mice’s tumors. In 1942, they tested the chemical on a New Haven Hospital patient with terminal cancer.

After 10 days, the patient’s tumors disappeared. Unfortunately, the cancer returned and the patient eventually died, but chemotherapy for cancer went on to become a life-saving treatment for millions.