Robert Wilson with an early magnet design display. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Dept. of Energy)

Robert R. Wilson: The Father of Proton Therapy


History teaches us a number of lessons. The lesson learned in this blog comes from a very important paper written in 1946 that teaches us that good things can come from the tragedy of war.

Despite being a great scientist, Robert Rathbun Wilson, PhD, (1914-2000) probably would have been hesitant to accept the title of “Father of Proton Therapy.” After all, he learned high-energy physics in the cradle of “big science,” the Radiation Laboratory of Ernest O. Lawrence at the University of California, Berkeley.

He was also part of the Manhattan Project group that developed the atomic bomb, and led an immense team of physicists that conceived, developed, built, and operated Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) near Chicago. Dr. Wilson understood and practiced teamwork and collaboration.

Reluctant as he may have been to be considered the “Father of Proton Therapy,” Dr. Wilson might have still had a slight twinkle in his eye, because he was also very much an individualist. He was a real-life cowboy (born, appropriately enough, in Frontier, Wyoming) who probably did “learn to ride ‘fore he could stand.”

He was a serious sculptor of international renown, whose works are displayed at many universities and research institutions, including Fermilab; he was a firmly committed advocate of human rights, whose directives on affirmative action (long before the phase was conceived) were posted conspicuously throughout Fermilab and remain to this day; and he championed unceasingly the peaceful use of the atomic energy he helped to unleash.

Proton therapy is one of those peaceful uses. It is, in a real sense, part of Robert Wilson’s legacy.

Robert Wilson’s seminal contribution to proton radiation therapy was made manifest in a paper he published more than a half-century ago. Titled “Radiological Use of Fast Protons” (Radiology 1946:47:487-91), the article established the fundamental tenets and techniques that are being followed today by Provision and at other proton therapy facilities around the world.