From Macroscopic to Microscopic: A Brief History of the Origins and Treatment of Cancer in the Western World

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Margaret Maria Olszewski


History of Cancer, Humoural Theory, Lymph Node Theory, Blastema Theory, Oncogene Theory, Tumour Suppressor Gene


Theories about the origins of cancer and potential treatments for the disease can be traced back to several ancient papyri of Egyptian derivation that documented palliative treatment and surgical removal of tumours. In the Greco-Roman period, Hippocrates explained cancer using his humoured theory, arguing that an excess of black bile produced uncontrollable, crab-like cell growths. This theory would dominate explanations of cancer for the next millennia as it was safeguarded in the work of Hippocrates’ successor Galen. While there were some developments in cancer understanding made in the Middle Ages, it was not until the nineteenth century that microscopic work by German pathologists including Müller and Virchow, identified the cellular origins of cancer began. With the advance of modern technology in the twentieth century, researchers were able to examine even smaller components of cells and describe a complex retinue of genes involved in the development of cancer. Notable among these was the discovery of oncogenes followed by the identification of tumour suppressor genes. Over the course of this narrative, it becomes clear that the history of cancer is the story of how human observation progressed from the macroscopic to the microscopic. Increased scientific liberties and medical knowledge facilitated a narrowing of the investigative lens both literally and figuratively.