History Lesson: Robert R. Wilson – The Father of Proton Therapy


History teaches us a number of lessons, so I wanted to share a very important paper written in 1946 that teaches us that good things can come from the tragedy of war.  The introduction that follows was written by the National Association for Proton Therapy:

Good scientist that he was, Robert Rathbun Wilson, PhD, (1914-2000) probably would have demurred if he had been called the “father of proton therapy.” He learned high-energy physics, after all, in the cradle of “big science,” the Radiation Laboratory of Ernest O. Lawrence at the University of California, Berkeley.

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

Dr. Wilson might have demurred with a twinkle in his eye, however, for 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 atomic energy he helped to unleash.

The Provision Center for 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’s established the fundamental tenets and techniques that are being followed today at the Provision Center for Proton Therapy and at other proton therapy facilities around the world.