Blair-Bell 12: Important Connections in International Cancer Research Work

Two more boxes of papers relating to the career of Professor William Blair-Bell have been catalogued and repackaged since the last posting to this blog, and some quite exciting professional connections have been unearthed!

As well as correspondence between 1926 and 1928 from random members of the public to Professor Blair-Bell, giving their own opinions on treatments for cancer (and which were largely ignored by the professor!), Blair-Bell also corresponded with medics overseas, in particular the USA. Among these papers is a manuscript letter from Dr Harvey Cushing of Boston, written in 1925 and relating to Blair-Bell’s proposed visit to the US. Cushing was known for cerebral surgery and surgery of the nervous system, and for his contributions to bacteriology, as well as developing the method of operating with local anaesthesia. The other major correspondent was Dr Francis Carter Wood (1869-1951) of the Columbia University Institute of Cancer Research, with extensive discussion between 1926 and 1929 of aspects of research work on lead treatments for cancer, including the availability of the lead preparation in the US and Carter Wood’s own experiences of using the lead in the treatment of cancer. Carter Wood was an American cancer researcher, and a pioneer in the use of X-rays and radium for treatment of cancer, and had been made senior consultant in neurological surgery for the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe in 1918. I personally like the fact that Blair-Bell was so impressed by his American counterpart that he scribbled a note on the top of one of the letters – ‘Should like some paper like this’!

Not only do these papers provide an interesting view of the international research work for a cancer treatment, they also provide a fascinating and complete picture of the work being carried out in Liverpool, with cancer research case records completed by the Liverpool Medical Research Organisation, arranged alphabetically by patient, and providing details of patients, symptoms, treatment, charts and examination notes for the years 1924 to 1925.

Another section of the papers of particular interest are the letters between Blair-Bell and the Cunard Steam Ship Company, concerning the payment of customs duty for a shipment of tetraethyl lead for research work from the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation in New York in 1927. Blair-Bell refused to pay the customs duty being demanded of him and curtly replied: ‘Will you kindly inform HM Customs that the Tetraethyl lead sent to me from America for experimental purposes in the treatment of cancer, which might prove of vital importance to HM Subjects, is not a commercial article and as far as we are concerned can be thrown in the sea.’ The lengthy discussion resulted in the Board of Trade proclaiming in June 1927 the exemption from duty of ethylene bromide and other chemicals. Blair-Bell was indeed a formidable opponent!

I shall end with an image of a printed booklet found among the papers, advertising the use of brandy and salt ‘as a valuable remedy for most diseases from cancer’ (1927). If only it were that easy……


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