Histories of Cancer — the last 5000 years

Histories of cancer are en vogue. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of Maladies just won numerous awards and the current issue of Nature has a lengthy essay by Barbara Dunn from the US National Cancer Institute. Large parts of it read like an excerpt from The Emperor, which they most probably are. Never mind, the Emperor is a fantastic book – why reinvent the wheel?

Dunn’s article adds some value by adding a timeline of Cancer Through The Decades, which in particular shows how long the road from discovery to drug approval is (41 years in the case of BCR-ABL). Dunn’s strength lies in discussing the effect prevention can have and she highlights the importance of screening programs:

Understanding the biology of cancer and the steps a cell goes through as it becomes cancerous helps make cancer screening possible. Cancer does not appear suddenly — most common cancers take many years to develop. Screening, or testing for early cancer or precancerous cells takes advantage of that long time frame. Screening does not prevent cancer, but it often detects the disease before it becomes dangerous.

I took Dunn’s article as a reason to look for other timelines of cancer. Knowing the history of one’s field should be good for the big picture:

Siddhartha Mukherjee: Constructing a History of Cancer (NCI Special Lecture)

Let’s start with the master: Siddhartha Mulkherjee gave an NCI Special Lecture on the history of cancer not long ago in June 2011.

Full version (>1h) available at

The Youtube version only shows ‘the highlights’ and it’s worth checking out the full version. When you watch it, take your time to read the closed captions — the machine-transcribed text is quite funny. For example it has Varmus introducing Mukherjee with the words: “You know him as the author of The EM FOR ROR of all maladies, the winner of this year’s PULL LIT SER prize for general NON-INFECTION …” Non-infection? Everything’s a disease at the NIH.

CancerQuest: History of cancer timeline

CancerQuest, a cancer education and outreach program at Emory University, offers a history of cancer timeline and a history of cancer detection, including key events from 3000 B.C. to the present.

“Signs of cancer are found on the bones of mummies from anceint Egypt and Peru dating back as far as 3000 BC.”

Facing cancer together: A short history of cancer

And Facing cancer together have put together a short history on Youtube.

“Many people think of cancer as a modern disease, but it’s not. You might be surprised at early knowledge and early treatments, and how they’ve both evolved.”

I can distinctly remember that Mukherjee also had a nicely illustrated timeline to go with The Emperor on his website, which looks boring and empty at the moment … He had done his timeline with some online service, but I can’t remember how that was called. Can anybody help?

Update 20 April 2012: I just found a timeline of cancer milestones that Nature had published in 2006. 24 short stories about key discoveries in the cancer field between 1889 and 2001.


Barbara Dunn, Cancer: Solving an age-old problem, Nature 483, S2–S6, 01 March 2012.


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