Chapter 03: The Race to Build a Cobalt-60 System and Why it Was Key to MD Anderson’s Reputation


Chapter 03: The Race to Build a Cobalt-60 System and Why it Was Key to MD Anderson’s Reputation



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Here, Dr. Anderson describes the race to build the first Betatron between Leonard Grimmett and researchers at MD Anderson and Harold Jones, a Canadian researcher. Grimmett designed the first device and provided its proof of concept at MD Anderson but was not able to get cobalt 60 to build the first machine, which was eventually built by Atomic Energy of Canada, Limited.



Publication Date



The Making Cancer History® Voices Oral History Collection, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center


Houston, Texas

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The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center - Overview; Overview; Definitions, Explanations, Translations; MD Anderson History; MD Anderson Snapshot; Understanding Cancer, the History of Science, Cancer Research; The History of Health Care, Patient Care; Technology and R&D; The MD Anderson Brand, Reputation; Patients; Patients, Treatment, Survivors

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.


History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Oncology | Oral History


James S. Olson, Ph.D.

The next generation of biological therapies, they hope, will do the same somehow? Not radiotherapy, but chemotherapy, just sort of deliver these drugs systemically anywhere that you can somehow get them to the tumor itself, that same kind of notion?

Peter Almond, Ph.D.

Yes. But the interesting thichng is now with radiation therapy if you’ve got a tumor that’s sort of close or wrapping around the spinal cord, there was no way in the past to treat that because if you go through the spinal cord. It’s fairly sensitive. You’re limited by a dose. Otherwise you’re going to cause paralysis. But now you can sort of get the radiation to sort of just wrap around the spinal cord and spare it. It’s quite amazing what they can do.

Because these are high-energy X-rays that are being used, the skin dose is low, there’s no problem with high-skin doses and radiation burns of the skins. There might be a little reddening, I suppose, but generally even that’s gone today. Things have changed a lot. So that’s why we went through the Betatron and into the linear accelerators. The Betatrons came along first. They were easier to build, and it wasn’t sure right at the beginning whether Betatrons or linear accelerators were the way to go. Most people started at the Betatrons and went over to linear accelerators. The cobalt 60, again, just got replaced by very efficient and reliable linear accelerators, and when you turn a linear accelerator off, it’s off. But when you’ve got a cobalt unit [laughs]—

James S. Olson, Ph.D.

Oh, it’s never off.

Peter Almond, Ph.D.

It’s always emitting and you’ve got to have the right kind of shielding and protection and all kinds of things. Regulatory people don’t like those types of things, so they’ve almost disappeared completely. There are a few around, not in this country, I don’t think.

James S. Olson, Ph.D.

Why did that cobalt 60 bring such sort of fame to Fletcher?

Peter Almond, Ph.D.

First of all, they were amongst the first people to first have the idea and then produce a working machine. As you know, the big competition was whether we were first or whether Harold Jones and the people in Canada were first in doing it. In fact, it was simultaneous. I don’t think there was any doubt that Harold Jones had this idea. I knew Harold very well, and he developed Betatrons also. He was a visionary and he saw the use of both of these and he saw cobalt 60 and designed units. The Canadians were producing more cobalt 60s than we were, so he had that advantage. That’s where we got slowed up, but Grimmett and Fletcher both, I think, saw that cobalt 60 was an ideal isotope to put into a treatment machine, and there wasn’t anything else at that time.

This is really before Betatrons. The idea was there but they hadn’t really been developed. Linear accelerators were just slow at getting along. And Grimmett, if you read his paper that he published here, his idea was he saw this as a low-cost device that could be put anywhere and be available to anybody throughout the world. This was something that there wasn’t a lot of technology involved once it was built, but it was simple to run, simple to operate, inexpensive in many ways, and so he saw this as sort of opening up radiation oncology to a lot of people.

James S. Olson, Ph.D.

Did it?

Peter Almond, Ph.D.

Oh, yes, it did. I mean it really did. So the race was on to build one, and Grimmett’s design was a very, very good design. It’s just that we couldn’t get the cobalt 60 for it soon enough because of politics between Canada and the United States and other things and it wasn’t there. But certainly, Grimmett published the first design for the cobalt unit before anybody else and just didn’t get it loaded with cobalt soon enough. But it was built here, went into operation here, and was in use here, and proved the concept. It was then mainly the Canadians, Atomic Energy of Canada, Limited.

As you know, we had an arrangement with G.E. [General Electric] to build the first unit here, and

G.E. then went into an arrangement with the Canadians to sort of build units. That didn’t last very long and G.E. got out of business and then the Canadians really took over. A company called Atomic Energy of Canada, Limited, which was a tran company, eventually, was the one that ended up building them.

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Chapter 03: The Race to Build a Cobalt-60 System and Why it Was Key to MD Anderson’s Reputation