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Dr. Emil Grubbe: The first X-ray martyr

by Diana Bradley, Staff Writer | January 11, 2012
From the January 2012 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine

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.

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