Chemotherapy refers to a group of drugs that fight cancer. Surgery and radiation were the two common anti-cancer therapies before the discovery of effective chemotherapy. Immunotherapy was also studied but showed little promise.
In the 1800s, scientists thought drugs might be able to fight cancer. However, none of them worked well. In the 1910s, scientists discovered how to transplant tumors between mice, enabling them to attempt curing the tumors. Despite attempts with various drugs and hormones, nothing made a substantive difference.
The initial breakthrough in chemotherapy was accidental. Both the Allies and Axis engaged in chemical warfare in WWI. They banned it by WWII. However, in recognition either side could break the ban, both continued developing chemical weapons in secret.
On December 2, 1943, Nazi bombers launched a surprise attack on ships near Bari, Italy. One of those ships, the John Harvey, was a floating chemical weapons bunker. Mustard gas combined with seawater and the combination covered sailors from many ships who jumped into the water. The gas was not immediately fatal because seawater diluted the concentration.
Within a day, sailors began suffering illness from mustard gas poisoning. By the end of December 83 of the 628 hospitalized died and an unknown number of civilians were also affected.
Milton Winternitz of Yale noted many of those injured by the gas showed marked depletion of bone marrow and lymph nodes. Winternitz speculated the diluted poison might have therapeutic benefits, especially in cancer patients. Early tests with diluted nitrogen mustard proved especially effective for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Due to the illegal genesis of the finding, results were not reported until after the war, in 1946.
Early enthusiasm turned after discovering remissions were brief. However, later scientists found folic acid analogs similar to mustard gas produced better results.
Besides the poisons, experimental work with WWII antibiotics also stumbled upon some substances that fight tumors.
Chemotherapy research continued with Mary Lasker (Albert Lasker’s wife) leading the charge via the American Cancer Society, that Albert named. The group pioneered the public/private partnerships with the US government to research and produce drugs private companies owned. At the time, this seemed the best way to speed along development. However, it was controversial then and remains controversial today.
Today, there are countless chemotherapy drugs to fight cancer. In 2016, about 1.7 million people developed cancer and just over one-third of those died. Worldwide estimates are about 18 million cancer patients every year and many die from the disease.