Sue Young Histories

Emile Herman Grubbe 1875 - 1960

February 02, 2008

Emile Herman Grubbe 1875 –
1960Emile Herman Grubbe** 1875 - 1960** (pronounced Grew-bay). In 1896 homeopathic physician Emile Grubbe was the first person (Jerome M. Vaeth, Intraoperative Radiation Therapy in the Treatment of Cancer, (Karger Publishers, 1 Jan 1997). Page 1) to use radiation treatment on a cancer patient ( when he discovered fractionated radiotherapy (C.G. Orton, Radiation Dosimetry, (Springer, 31 Mar 1986)). Grubbe was also the first to use lead as protection against x rays (

He is the originator ( of the Memorial Award of the Chicago Radioloical Society. Despite horrible disfigurement from his own experimentation, Grubbe eventually had to give up lecturing after his body was made ’a testing laboratory’ for the poorly understood effects of x-ray.

From Grubbe graduated from the Hahnemann Medical College of Chicago, and following his graduation he was inspector for the health department of Chicago from 1898 to 1900.

He was attending Physician to 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, also vice-president in that school and Chief Radiographer in the Illinois X-ray and Electro-Therapeutic Laboratory.

He is a member of the Clinical Society of Hahnemann Hospital, the American Roentgen-Ray Society, the Chicago Electro-Medical Society and of the International Electrical Congress in 1904.

Homeopaths had been experimenting with Uranium as a treatment for diabetes since 1860 (Anon, The North American Journal of Homeopathy, Volume 10; on nitrate of uranium in diabetes, (American Medical Union, 1862). Page 384). Grubbe also recommended x-ray for the treatment of acne and on Lupus Vulgaris. Grubbe, in consultation with his colleagues at the Hahnemann Medical College of Chicago Dr. Joseph Puttee Cobb, R Ludman and Dr. J. E Gilman decided to try x ray to treat breast cancer. Grubbe also tried x ray in the treatment of urinary calculi, cancer of the wrist, cancer of the uterus and delerium.

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen received The Nobel Prize in Physics 1901. On December 28, 1895, Röntgen delivered to the Secretary of the Würzburg Physical and Medical Society, a handwritten paper entitled, ”Ueber eine neue Art yon Strahlen,” on a new kind of rays.

The news of the discovery appeared in the Chicago newspapers on January 9, 1896. Emil Herman Grubbé (1875-1960), a student instructor at the Hahnemann Medical College who made a living manufacturing vacuum tubes for laboratories, promptly proceeded to experiment with a coil and tube.

On January 27th, just four days after Röntgen’s official presentation in Würzburg, Grubbé exhibited his reddened hands to members of his faculty. As a consequence, one of his professors referred to him a patient with recurrent cancer of the breast; two days later, Grubbé started a series of fractionated irradiations that lasted over three weeks. (note the homeopathic principle was well applied here and still in use today).

Discovery of x-rays by Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen in Würzburg in 1895 provided the basis for radiotherapy and mammography. The mysterious ray, designated “x,” not only penetrated tissues but also killed cancers. One year after Röntgen’s discovery, x-rays were used to treat three cases of breast cancer, two by Hermann Goeht in Hamburg and one by Emile Herman Grubbé in Chicago.

Emil Herman Grubbe was born in Chicago of German immigrant parents on Jan. 1, 1875. He became a wage earner at the age of 13 years, which was not unusual for children at that time, and his childhood, by our standards, was spartan in the extreme.

He was first employed at a drugstore as a bottle washer and errand boy. This employment was shortly followed by a much nicer job as office boy at Marshall Field’s store at State and Madison in 1888. By the standards of the time, this was splendid employment for a boy his age. The pay was generous —$2 a week for 10 hours work.

During this time he came to the attention of Marshall Field himself, who encouraged him to pursue his interest in science and medicine, and at the age of 15 years Emil decided to become a physician.

It was not uncommon for youngsters of 15 or 16 years of age to enter medical school in those days, but Grubbe’s formal education was so limited that he could not obtain admission to any of the not overly selective 15 or more medical schools then existing in Chicago.

He enrolled, therefore, in Northern Indiana Normal School at Valparaiso and by hard work as a night watchman he was able to complete his formal premedical education and entered Hahnemann Medical College of Chicago in 1895.

His talent for scientific study and teaching led to his appointment as an instructor in physics and chemistry at the medical college while he was also an undergraduate student.

At that time, Roentgen’s discovery in November of 1895 so impressed young Grubbe that he obtained a vacuum discharge tube and began his mutilation and disfigurement.

He conducted an investigation of the fluoroscopic capabilities of the “‘new ray” and, along with Thomas Alva Edison and many other pioneers, some of the original investigations into the applications of the roentgen ray.

It was at this time that he began to suffer from radiation-dermatitis of the hands and neck. The relationship of these lesions to radiation was clear to him, and at the suggestion of one of his colleagues he began to experiment with the use of this apparatus in the treatment of carcinoma. Success was almost instantaneous.

In February of 1896, he founded the first radiation therapy facility in Chicago, at South Cottage Grove Avenue in Chicago.

All of this was accomplished before he graduated from medical school in 1898. He remained a member of the faculty and occupied the professorial chair in electrotherapeutics and radiography until 1919. While at Hahnemann he was perhaps one of the first to organize the modern-day precursor of CME programs, offering two-week courses in radiation physics and the uses of radiation in the treatment of human disease.

Simultaneously, in the early-1900s, he was teaching at four institutions within the city as well as maintaining a private practice. He wrote extensively throughout his life, publishing approximately 90 papers.

He was a world traveler and an ardent explorer and vulcanologist, visiting almost all the then-existing volcanos in the world. He was an eye witness to the destruction of San Pierre by the Mount Pelee eruption in 1902.

Dr. Grubbe in his early years practiced both diagnosis and therapy. But in anticipation of the eventual evolution of sub-specialization, he restricted his practice to radiation therapy during the early 1920s, practicing until his retirement in 1947.

His extraordinarily long and active career and his accomplishments were attained in spite of considerable physical suffering as the result of the radiation dermatitis and anemia, which was probably radiation related. His left hand was amputated in 1929 and he underwent many lesser but nevertheless disfiguring surgeries for multiple cutaneous malignancies.

He died in 1960 as the result of multiple squamous carcinomas with metastasis.

In 1964 his estate bequeathed to the University of Chicago a sum of money to provide an annual gold medal and lecture in his honor and memory. Since 1970 this medal has been awarded by the Chicago Medical Society at the Chicago Radiological Society meetings.

Dr. Grubbe was an extraorindary man, a creature of his time and place. He was colorful, flamboyant and occasionally saw himself in a somewhat better light than did his contemporaries. He was, however, a true American pioneer physician, largely self-taught, utterly devoted to investigation applications of the “new ray” and to the maintenance of his very extensive private practice.

He was not the first to develop fluoroscopy, but he was certainly among the first. He was, however, recognized as one of the earliest radiation therapy specialists in this city and perhaps in the United States.

Born to Albert and Bertha (Reets) Grubbe; primary education in Holden School and German private school, Chicago; took preparatory teachers’ and phar macy courses at Valparaiso (Ind.) College; 1890-5; also scientific and classical courses, obtaining degrees of B.S., M.S., Ph.G.; court and med. reporter, 1896-6; took med. course at Hahnemann Med. College and Hosp., 1895- 1898, graduating M.D.; married in. Pentwater, Mich., Sept. 10, 1899, Clara Antonia Jensen.

First work was in 1887 as drug store “devil,” later cash boy, stock boy and salesman at Marshall Field & Co.’s retail store until 1890, when left to go to college; began practice of medicine in Chicago, Mar., 1898; was physician with Chicago Health Dept. 3 years; also school inspector.

Expert in radiographic, electro-diag- nostic and general electric methods. Pres. Illinois X-Ray and Electro-Therapeutic Labor- atory; vice-pres., prof, of radiography and x- ray therapeutics and dir. Illinois School of Electro-Therapeutics; dir. Morain Mining and Milling Co.

Extensive writer upon med. sub- jects pertaining to electricity and x-rays; on editorial staff of several med. journals; prof, electro-therapeutics and chemistry, Hahne- mann Med. College; consulting physician Hahnemann Hosp.; medico-legal expert for several Insurance companies; med. solicitor for Fidelity and Casualty Co., New York; med. examiner for several insurance companies.

Mem. Am. Roentgen Ray Soc., Am. Electro-Thera- peutic Assn., International Electrical Con- gress, St. Louis, 1904, Clinical Soc. of Hahnemann Hosp.; vice-pres. Chicago Electro-Med. Soc. Office: 52 State St. Residence: 2960 In- diana Av.

In a ramshackle Chicago laboratory, an earnest, imaginative young scientist named Emil Grubbe gazed at the greenish glow coming from a Crookes vacuum tube he had made. He put his left hand on the tube. It was warm.

Grubbe (pronounced Grew-bay) was satisfied that the tube (useful only in scientific experiments) was working right. By summer’s end, a severe skin irritation appeared on Grubbe’s left hand. Dermatologists had no idea what it was.

Then Grubbe heard that, from similar tubes, Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen had generated a new and mysterious form of radiation—X rays. “I knew then that I had been burned by X rays,” says Grubbe. The time: November 1895. Last week Dr. Grubbe, 84, lay in Chicago’s Swedish Covenant Hospital, apparently recovering from surgery for cancer resulting from his work with Crookes tubes. It had been his 92nd operation.

The first X-ray martyr—a victim of the rays’ effects before their nature was recognized—has proved to be one of the toughest.

Lead Shields. Chicago-born Emil Herman Grubbe got through Valparaiso (Ind.) University at 20, mined platinum in Idaho, and began using the metal in his vacuum tubes. He was teaching chemistry and studying medicine at Chicago’s Hahnemann Medical College …

There, three weeks after word of Roentgen’s work got out. Grubbe displayed his burned left hand at a faculty meeting. A doctor suggested that anything capable of causing such a reaction in healthy tissue might be used in treating diseased tissue. Another doctor promptly referred a woman with breast cancer to Grubbe for X-ray treatment. Though she died within three months, Grubbe was confident that her tumor’s growth had been slowed.

And, personally and painfully aware of X rays’ dangers, he had already begun devising lead shields to protect healthy parts of the body. Soon Grubbe was treating as many as 75 patients a day.

Not until 1898 did he get his M.D., at once became the world’s first professor of roentgenology, ran the first hospital

X-ray department. Says Dr. Grubbe: “I taught more than 7,000 doctors and could never stress enough the dangers inherent in careless handling of X rays. Yet of the 7,000, more than 300 have already died from the effects of radiation. I tried to warn them, but not all of them would listen.”

Finger Exercises. Dr. Grubbe could do nothing to check the slow but relentless advance of his own cancer. In scores of operations, he has lost his left hand (32 years ago) and forearm, most of his nose and upper lip. and much of his upper jaw. He was divorced in 1911, explains:

"I couldn't inflict my disfigurement on anybody else."

Since then. Dr. Grubbe has lived alone in an apartment, fixing his own meals (increasingly from cans), has kept up with medical progress, using a magnifier to aid his failing sight.

A few weeks ago. Dr. Grubbe’s cancer began to spread faster. In a three-hour operation last week. Surgeon John R. Orndorff removed an egg-sized lump from his right armpit, as well as the index and little fingers of his hand. Dr. Grubbe had prepared himself for their loss by practicing household chores with his thumb and middle fingers. At week’s end he had regained enough strength to renew his campaign for safety measures against the hazards of radiation.

Said Martyr Grubbe:

“Both Russia and America must stop exploding nuclear bombs immediately. I know what radiation can do.”

Grubbe wrote High frequency electric currents in medicine in 1904, The origin and birth of x-ray therapy. Urol Cutaneous Rev 1947 May;51(5):375-9, and X-ray treatment; its introduction to medicine. J Am Inst Homeopath 1946 Dec;39(12):419-22 and X Ray Treatment: Its Origin, Birth and Early History in 1949, Priority in the Therapeutic Use of X Rays. Radiology 1933 21 156-62.

Homeopathic Journals reported widely on Grubbe’s work in The Hahnemannian Monthly 1901 and 1913, the Proceedings Homeopathic Medical Society of the State of Ohio 1904, History of homeopathy and its institutions in America in 1905, The Materia Medica of the Nosodes with Provings of the X-ray in 1910, the North American Journal of Homoeopathy in 1923, The Clinique Hahnemann Hospital of the City of Chicago, Illinois Homeopathic Medical Association 1926

In 1933 Grubbe wrote:

“From a purely historical standpoint, I promise that [my next] paper will be one of the most momentous in X-Ray literature.“–Émil H. Grubbé, The Radiological Review.

"Under the light of this newly found material, I feel that the claims which have been made for others, to priority in the therapeutic use of x rays, should no longer go unchallenged . . . after nearly four decades of waiting, I am in a position to assert my claims . . . and to receive the credit, which, I feel, should have been mine all these years"

Grubbe died in 1960:

Died. Dr. Emil Herman Grubbe, 85, Chicago-born physician and radiation expert who generated X rays soon after Roentgen did in 1895, became the world’s first known victim of radiation as it progressively caused cancer in his hands and left forearm, most of his nose, upper lip and jaw; of pneumonia (an indirect result of his cancer); in Chicago, after a lifetime of 93 operations.

In his later years, Émil Grubbé’s extensive radiation injuries left him so terribly disfigured that he remained indoors whenever possible. Even conversations with sympathetic visitors often took place with Grubbé hidden behind a screen.

Through his loneliness, one thought sustained him: that he had earned an enduring place in the history of radiology.

To secure this place in history, Grubbé published additional details about his work and further claims of priority in X-Ray Treatment—Its Origin, Birth and Early History (Grubbé 1949).

Even then, an irresistible urge to say more led him to one final act of foolishness: he bequeathed his estate to the University of Chicago with the stipulation that the University write and publish his biography.


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