A Brief History of Chemotherapy

A Brief History of Chemotherapy

In the early 1900s, a German chemist named Paul Ehrlich began using chemicals to treat disease, coining the term “chemotherapy.” Cancer chemotherapy refers to the medications used to treat cancer in humans and animals.

Post-World War II

During World War II, exposure to mustard gas was found to affect the bone marrow and lymph nodes of soldiers. This led two prominent Yale pharmacologists to examine the possibility of mustard gas as a cancer treatment.

In 1943, they administered nitrogen mustard to a patient with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and an obstructed airway. The treatment was successful for disease regression. In 1946, results of their study were published and nitrogen mustard was used to treat lymphomas across the country. However, it was later discovered that the remissions were short-lived.

Soon after, a researcher from Boston found that a compound in folic acid blocked a certain chemical reaction needed for DNA replication. Because of this discovery, the drug was used to treat children with acute leukemia in 1948. Methotrexate, a common treatment used today, evolved from this early drug.


The 1950s began as a pessimistic time for cancer treatments because of some failed treatment options, but there were glimmers of hope.

In 1955, the Cancer Chemotherapy National Service Center was established. The center’s creation led to one of the most successful government programs ever, providing resources for further advancement of cancer treatment.


Due to the efforts of dedicated researchers, there were many advances in chemotherapy in the 1960s. These advances offered hope cancers could be cured with chemotherapy drugs.

Utilizing plant alkaloids for cancer treatment was part of changing this perception. In early programs, they were used to treat Hodgkin’s disease and pediatric leukemia. These studies delivered impressive results that led to more advancements.


The 1970s were a time of significant change due to more successful treatments. The Cancer Act of 1971 was passed, essentially declaring our nation’s “war on cancer.” This decision greatly affected chemotherapy development for decades to come.

Chemotherapy was combined with surgery and/or radiation treatments to create comprehensive treatment plans tailored to each patient’s needs.

Chemotherapy has come a long way since its development in the early twentieth century. Researchers continue to make new discoveries leading to better treatment options for patients.