Our progress and achievements from 1902 to 1959
Cancer Research UK's history dates back to the turn of the 20th century. Back then, there were few treatments for cancer, and even fewer that were effective.
But cancer wasn't the major cause of death - assuming it was correctly diagnosed. That dubious honour went to infectious diseases such as smallpox, measles and typhus.
But our scientists were still working hard, starting to understand cancer and how to treat it. Here are some highlights of their pioneering work.
Thanks to improved public health and vaccination - discounting the devastating impact of two World Wars - life expectancy rose through the first half of the 20th century. Because the risk of cancer increases with age, cancer rates also rose.
Due to a lack of refrigeration and poor living conditions, stomach cancer was relatively common and claimed many lives. Since the 1950s, death rates have fallen consistently from around 45 deaths in every 100,000 men in 1950 to around 9 today, while rates in women have fallen from 25 to only 4 in every 100,000.
In July 1902 the Royal Colleges of Surgeons and Physicians, concerned about the suffering caused by cancer, set up the UK's first specialist cancer research organisation. It later becomes known as the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF)
In the 1920s a group of doctors and scientists decided they want to focus more heavily on clinical research rather than the fundamental lab research in progress at the ICRF.
Controversially, they formed a new charity, later renamed The Cancer Research Campaign. Decades later, the two organisations would merge, forming Cancer Research UK.
In 1937, our scientists discovered diethylstilboestrol, a synthetic hormone that mimics the action of the hormone oestrogen. Initially used in breast cancer, it became the treatment of choice for advanced prostate cancer for over 40 years. 1
Sir Alexander Haddow's team at the Institute of Cancer Research also made the synthetic hormone triphenylethylene, and showed its benefit as a breast cancer treatment in 1945.
Our scientists did some of the earliest studies of cervical screening in the 1950s. Their work has since helped to improve the UK's cervical cancer screening programme, which saves thousands of lives every year.
And we're still going strong
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- Dodds, E.C. et al. (1953) Synthetic oestrogenic compounds related to stilbene and diphenylethane. III. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B. Biol. Sci. 140: 470-97 PubMed link
- Doll, R. & Hill, A. (1950) Smoking and carcinoma of the lung; preliminary report. BMJ 2: 739-48 PubMed link
- Doll, R. et al. (2004) Mortality in relation to smoking: 50 years’ observations on male British doctors. BMJ 328: 1519 PubMed link.
- Everett, J. et al. (1953) Aryl-2-halogenoalkylamines. Part XII. Some carboxylic derivatives of N,N-di-2-chloroethylamines. J. Chem. Soc. 2386-90 Journal link
- Bergel, F. & Stock, J.A. (1954) Cytoactive amino-acid and peptide derivatives. Part I. Substituted phenylalanines. J. Chem. Soc. 2409-17 Journal link
- Haddow, A. & Timmis, G.M. (1953) Myleran in chronic myeloid leukaemia; chemical constitution and biological action. Lancet 264: 207-8 PubMed link