Pioneers of Breast Cancer

8 people who changed the way we look at breast cancer

The Ancient Egyptians

Approximately 3150 BC - 30 BC

Dating back to 1600 BC, the Edwin Smith papyrus is an excerpt from an ancient Egyptian textbook on trauma surgery and is the first medical document known to man. It describes eight cases of tumours or ulcers of the breast. The papyrus concludes: "There is no treatment [for breast cancer]". Thankfully, this has changed and today there are a number of treatments available to treat the disease.

Bernardino Ramazzini

3 November 1633 - 5 November 1714

Noting the relatively high rates of breast cancer in nuns, Bernardino Ramazzini postulated that they have a higher chance of getting breast cancer because of their celibate lifestyle. This was an important step in understanding the role of hormones - such as those that change with pregnancy - in breast cancer. Today, hormone testing is a widespread and important part of diagnosing and treating the disease.

Henri Le Dran

13 October 1685 - 17 October 1770

Henri Le Dran, a French surgeon, was the first to hypothesise that breast cancer was a disease of different stages and that preventing spread of the cancer to nearby lymph nodes was key. This led him to be the first to recommend surgical removal of the tumour as a treatment for breast cancer.

William Stewart Halsted

23 September 1852 - 7 September 1922

William Halsted pioneered the radical mastectomy where the breast, underlying chest muscle and lymph nodes in the arm pits are removed. Now, due to improvements in surgical techniques and understanding of breast cancer it is now often possible to conserve muscle and lymph node tissue, thereby improving the outcome for patients.

Colonel Sir George Thomas Beatson

1848 - 16 February 1933

In the 19th century, Thomas Beatson discovered that the breasts of rabbits stopped producing milk after he removed their ovaries. Consequently, Beatson removed the ovaries (called an oophorectomy) in patients with advanced breast cancer, which often resulted in improvements for patients. He also discovered the effect of the female ovarian hormone (oestrogen) on breast cancer, even before the hormone itself was discovered.

Janet Lane-Claypon

1877 - 1967

Janet Lane-Claypon is known as a founder of epidemiology having pioneered so-called cohort and case-control studies – two types of analysis which are still in use today. Her studies focused on breast cancer – looking at large numbers of similar women and comparing those with and without breast cancer. Her research identified many of the risk factors for breast cancer, such as menopause and number of children, that are still considered valid today.

Robert Allan Weinberg

11 November 1942 -

The HER2 gene was discovered by Robert Weinberg and his team of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and described in Nature in 1984. Since then, understanding and knowledge about the gene and its associated pathways has grown exponentially. We now know that over-expression of HER2 receptors causes an aggressive form of breast cancer that affects one in five women diagnosed with the disease.

Elwood Vernon Jensen

13 January 1920 - 16 December 2012

Elwood Jensen’s research on steroid hormones and his isolation of oestrogen receptors highlighted the important role hormones played in breast cancer and paved the way for treatments that specifically target these hormones.


  • 1. Image: Colonel Sir George Thomas Beatson. Accreditation: Sir George Thomas Beatson. Wellcome Library, London, used under CC BY 4.0/Filter applied to original image
  • 2. Image: Janet Lane-Claypon. Accreditation: Janet Lane-Claypon (Image credit: NIH)
  • 3. Image: Robert Allan Weinberg. Accreditation: Kelly Lorenz/Whitehead Institute