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Our progress and achievements from 1902 to 1959

Princess Elizabeth at work in World War II 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.

Cancer rates from 1902 to 1959

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.

Back to the beginning

The Imperial Cancer Fesearch Fund merged with the Cancer Research Campaign in 2002 to form Cancer Research UK. 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)

The Cancer Research Campaign was one of Cancer Research UK's parent organisations.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.

Early radiotherapy

The Cancer Research Campaign awarded its first grants for the purchase of radium to treat cervical cancer in 1923. Today, radiotherapy is used to treat around four out of ten cancer patients.

Find out more about our impact in radiotherapy over the years.

Sun danger

SunSmart campaignWe issued our first warning on the link between sun exposure and skin cancer back in 1935. This message forms the basis of our current SunSmart campaign, currently funded by the UK Department of Health.

Hormone therapy

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.

Linking smoking to cancer

An ashtray and cigarettesIn the 1950s, smoking was linked with lung cancer for the first time. 2 Professor Sir Richard Doll started a 50-year study of the risks of smoking and the benefits of quitting the habit, later working with another world leader in the field, Professor Sir Richard Peto. 3

New drugs

In the 50s we funded work that led to the development of three important chemotherapy drugs: chlorambucil4, melphalan5 and busulfan. 6 These drugs are still used today to treat some leukaemias, myeloma and lymphoma.

Cervical screening

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

Find out about the latest progress from our Press Centre and Science Update Blog.

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  1.   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
  2.   Doll, R. & Hill, A. (1950) Smoking and carcinoma of the lung; preliminary report. BMJ 2: 739-48 PubMed link
  3.   Doll, R. et al. (2004) Mortality in relation to smoking: 50 years’ observations on male British doctors. BMJ 328: 1519 PubMed link.
  4.   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
  5.   Bergel, F. & Stock, J.A. (1954) Cytoactive amino-acid and peptide derivatives. Part I. Substituted phenylalanines. J. Chem. Soc. 2409-17 Journal link
  6.   Haddow, A. & Timmis, G.M. (1953) Myleran in chronic myeloid leukaemia; chemical constitution and biological action. Lancet 264: 207-8 PubMed link
Updated: 25 September 2009