East Tennessee plays role in atoms for war, for peace


Back when the country’s great minds of science were cloistered in secret laboratories, manipulating the power of atoms into a weapon that would stop the world’s second great war, they were also dreaming of a time when such knowledge would be used for peace.

That work, carried on a few ridges and valleys away from Provision Center for Proton Therapy, now touches the lives of each patient who comes here for cancer treatment.

“It’s just incredible to see how developing the atomic bomb had a tremendous impact of making the scientists feel obliged to use their knowledge for purposes of peace,” Niek Schreuder tells patients in a presentation titled “From WWII to Proton Therapy—the Knoxville TN involvement.”

While x-rays have been used for medical treatment and diagnosis since the late 1800s—and the potency of the proton was theorized as early as 1904 in W.H. Bragg’s paper on the energy loss behavior of charged particles—it was not until the invention of the cyclotron by Ernest Lawrence in 1931 that the use of heavier atomic particles was presented as a potential option for cancer treatment. Neutrons were first tested on cancer in 1938, shortly after the neutron was discovered by James Chadwick in 1932. However, having no charge, neutrons have the distinct disadvantage of passing beyond the disease site, creating unwanted damage to healthy tissue along the way.

The cyclotron’s ability to accelerate particles was lassoed by the federal government in the 1940s, as World War II raged and Americans raced the Germans to develop the destructive technology that would become the atomic bomb. A device derived from the cyclotron, also invented by Lawrence and called a calutron (California University Cyclotron) proved to be the device of choice to enrich uranium. Great rows of calutrons were built in the “Secret City” of Oak Ridge, Tenn., just 20 miles from Knoxville. These were used to enrich uranium, separating the uranium-235 isotopes from their more common uranium-238 counterparts found in natural uranium ore.


Using the calutrons housed in what was, and is, known as the Y-12 Plant, enough U-235 was produced to be used as the fissile material for the atomic bomb called “Little Boy,” which was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.

A pacifist, Robert Wilson nonetheless joined the war effort as head of the Manhattan project’s cyclotron group, saying, in a now famous quote: “If ever the forces of darkness could be said to be lined up against the forces of light, it was at that time.” In 1946, shortly after WWII, Wilson published a paper titled the “Radiological use of fast protons” that described how accelerated proton could be used to treat deep-seated cancers.

Following the war, the use of atomic particles in healthcare continued to advance, with proton therapy first used for treatment in 1954 at Berkeley based on the principles Wilson outlined in his 1946 paper. Harvard treated its first proton patient in 1961. In 1988, the Food and Drug Administration approved proton therapy as a treatment modality, and just two years later the first hospital-based system opened at Loma Linda University Medical Center.

“It took basically 23 years to start the first 12 dedicated proton therapy centers in the United States”—with Provision Center for Proton Therapy being the 13th, says Schreuder. “It took three years to start the next 12 centers and one year to start the last six.”

Today, more than 70 years after Oak Ridge scientists engineered atoms to end a world war, Provision’s ProNova Solutions division is developing the next generation of technology to apply atoms for healing. With recent FDA approval, ProNova’s first system will go online later this year year.

“It’s fascinating to see the role that East Tennessee has played in the past and are now playing again to advance proton therapy for the better of many cancer patients,” he says.