Dr. Emil Grubbe: The first X-ray martyr

January 11, 2012
by Diana Bradley, Staff Writer
The Radiological Society of North America’s annual conference in Chicago only recently concluded. So it seems fitting to cover Dr. Emil Herman Grubbe – one of the earliest radiation therapy specialists in that city and perhaps the United States. But what would make the tenacious doctor’s career would inevitably polish him off, rendering Grubbe one of manmade radiation’s first victims.

Born January 1875 to German immigrants in the Windy City, our protagonist breezed into employment as an office boy at Marshall Field’s department store in 1888. Spurred on by his boss, Grubbe pursued his passion for science and medicine and at age 15 started trudging down his fateful career path as a physician. He attended the Hahnemann Medical College of Chicago, where he taught chemistry and studied medicine, but it was while moonlighting as a factory worker on Halsted Street that Grubbe began experimenting with Crookes tubes and coils.

Often exposing the bare flesh of his fingers and face to the tubes, his skin and nails began peeling, with mysterious blisters and tumors promptly materializing on his hand and neck. Around the same time, Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of the X-ray in November 1895 swiftly cracked the case.

"I knew then I had been burned by X-rays," said Grubbe. "They were produced in the Crookes tubes. From that day on I protected myself from the rays. But it was too late.”

In early 1896, the 21-year-old doctor’s professor, Dr. Reuben Ludlam, theorized that because radiation breeds tumors, it might also alleviate them — coinciding with one of homeopathic medicine’s basic premises that small doses can help mend symptoms that large doses induce. With this information and an improvised X-ray tube in tow, Grubbe began treating Rose Lee, an elderly patient suffering from breast cancer that had relapsed post-mastectomy – her tumor had mushroomed into an agonizing mass in her breast.

Although he would later become the first to use lead as protection against radiation exposure, in this particular instance, Grubbe fashioned a makeshift X-ray shield from tinfoil found at the bottom of a Chinese tea box to cover the rest of Lee’s chest. For 18 consecutive evenings, he irradiated her cancer, resulting in the ulcerating, tightening and shrinking of Lee’s tumor – this was the first documented local response in X-ray therapy’s history. This recovery, however, was short-lived. Three months after initial treatment, the cancer returned with a vengeance and Lee succumbed to it. From this, Grubbe ascertained that X-rays could only be utilized to treat local tumors, signifying the birth of radiation oncology.

Before his graduation from medical school in 1898, Grubbe founded the first radiation therapy facility at Chicago’s South Cottage Grove Avenue, where he used X-ray therapy to treat a multitude of other patients harboring local tumors. Word spread like wildfire and soon he was treating as many as 75 patients per day.

Along with maintaining a private practice, in the early 1900s Grubbe was an attending physician at Hahnemann Hospital, professor of electro-therapeutics and radiography in Hahnemann Medical College of Chicago, professor of radio-therapy and electro-physics in the Illinois School of Electro-Therapeutics and vice president in that school and chief radiographer in the Illinois X-ray and Electro-Therapeutic Laboratory. Adding to his extensive list of firsts, he became the world’s pioneering professor of roentgenology; ran the first hospital X-ray department; and was perhaps one of the first to organize a Continuing Medical Education program, offering two-week courses in radiation physics and using radiation to treat disease. Of the 7,000 doctors Grubbe taught, more than 300 died as result of radiation exposure. He practiced diagnosis and therapy, eventually restricting his practice to radiation therapy in the early 1920s until his retirement in 1947.

Throughout his life, Grubbe himself sustained 93 operations to remove radiation-induced tumors and pre-malignant warts – he eventually lost his left hand and forearm, most of his nose, upper jaw and upper lip. After divorcing his wife in 1911, Grubbe lived alone in an apartment, ultimately becoming so disfigured that he remained indoors whenever possible. Even when visitors came by, Grubbe would keep himself hidden behind a screen while conversing.

Grubbe published approximately 90 papers, including X-Ray Treatment – Its Origin, Birth and Early History, and constantly campaigned for safety measures against the dangers of radiation. He was a fellow of the American College of Physicians and countless institutions, including the American Cancer Society, bestowed honors upon him.

In the end, multiple forms of cancer overtook Grubbe’s body and he perished in March 1960, aged 85. Since 1970, the Chicago Medical Society has annually granted the Grubbe Memorial Award at Chicago Radiological Society meetings.

Despite the fact Grubbe was one of the first to be involved with and exposed to X-rays in large doses, he was still the last survivor of his group of radiology pioneers.