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Environmental Oncology in History


(460 B.C. – 377 B.C.)
Known as the “Father of Medicine,” Hippocrates is perhaps history’s most famous physician. By denouncing superstition and favoring the practice of medicine based on science, Hippocrates paved the way for the development of modern medical thought and practice. Although some writings attributed to him are thought actually to have been written by others taking advantage of his name and reputation, Hippocrates did write numerous treatises about a broad variety of medical topics ranging from head injuries to epidemics to ulcers. He is best known for the Hippocratic Oath, which physicians of today still recite upon graduation from medical school. He is the first physician to acknowledge a relationship between the environment and health. In his treatise, On Airs, Waters, and Places, he describes the many influences of such factors as diet, physical activity and water quality on health status.

On Airs, Waters, and Places

Bernardino Ramazzini
(1633 – 1714)
Bernardino Ramazzini, considered a founder of occupational and industrial medicine, worked throughout his career to determine the causes of disease related to occupation and industrial hygiene. His efforts led to the advent of worker safety and worker compensation laws. As early as the 1690s, Ramazzini performed research on environmental causes of disease by looking at the weather, soil, water and air in a given community with a particular disease outbreak. Published in 1700, his most famous book, “De Morbis Artificum Diatriba” (Diseases of Workers), represents the first comprehensive publication to address occupational diseases. In his book, Ramazzini discusses the health effects of chemicals, metals and other toxic agents experienced by workers in 52 different occupations. Named in his honor, the Collegium Ramazzini is an international council of scientists and experts created to advance the scholarly study of environmental and occupational health.Who Named It? Bernardino Ramazzini. (1994-2001). Retrieved March 2, 2005, from here.

Sir Percival Pott
(1713 – 1788)
As a physician, Sir Percival Pott became famous for several important contributions to medicine, including work on wounds and bony injuries as well as tuberculosis of the spine. He is one of the first physicians to find a correlation between a particular cancer and an occupational or environmental cause. In what represents one of the earliest epidemiologic studies (or studies of the occurrence and causes of disease), Pott observed that chimney sweeps in England had higher rates of scrotal cancer than the rest of the population.In doing their jobs, the chimney sweeps often had to climb naked into chimneys and suffered prolonged exposure to soot containing what are known today as carcinogens. By proposing that chimney sweeps bathe more frequently, Pott implemented a preventive tactic even before the advent of public health practice and preventive medicine. As a result of increased bathing and improved hygiene, the observed rate of scrotal cancers in this particular group of workers declined dramatically.Surgery Times. History of Surgery. Retrieved March 2, 2005, from here. Pharmaceutical Achievers. (2001). Cancer Chemotherapy: A Chemical Needle in a Haystack. Retrieved March 2, 2005, from here.

Alice Hamilton
(1869 – 1970)
Alice Hamilton was a woman of many firsts. At a time when most women were not granted equal opportunities to men, Hamilton broke down many barriers by attending and graduating from medical school, becoming a pioneer in the fields of industrial toxicology and occupational medicine, and earning an appointment as the first female professor and the first professor of industrial medicine at Harvard Medical School. Hamilton noticed that workers and laborers commonly toiled under extremely toxic conditions and suffered from complaints that seemed peculiar to certain trades. She consequently devoted her entire career to discerning the causes of industrial diseases. She is perhaps best known for her work on the lead trades and lead-related illness. Her autobiography, “Exploring the Dangerous Trades,” published in 1943, outlines her pioneering efforts in studying occupational and industrial diseases. Her groundbreaking work paved the way both for women in medicine and for the development of safety standards and improved working conditions for industrial workers and laborers in the United States. Salerno, DF and Feitshaus, IL. (2003, October). Alice Hamilton, MD: Gaining visibility for industrial medicine. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 57, 791. Retrieved February 28, 2005, from here. Distinguished Women of Past and Present. (1997). Alice Hamilton.
Retrieved February 28, 2005, from here. National Library of Medicine (1993, 2004). Dr. Alice Hamilton.
Retrieved February 28, 2005, from here.

Donora, PA
For four days in October 1948, the air in Donora, Pa., a mill town near Pittsburgh, became so thick and polluted that the townspeople could hardly see to walk down the street. Due to a peculiar weather pattern called an “inversion layer,” a cooler layer of upper air trapped the smoke and fumes from local mills close to the earth, where they could not rise and dissipate. The residents of Donora had no choice but to breathe the toxic fumes as they went about their daily lives. The result was killer smog of such proportion that more than 20 people ended up dead. Devra Lee Davis, environmental health expert and National Book Award finalist, documented this and other similar events in her book, “When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution”. This event became a symbol of how pollution can indeed kill and, in combination with some other pollution-related catastrophes, eventually led to the development of the 1990 Clean Air Act. The Plain English Guide to the Clean Air Act