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Our History

The use of radiation in the treatment of cancer is relatively recent with the discovery of X-rays in 1895 by Wilhelm Röntgen. Radiation Oncology has a long, storied history at Northwestern dating back to the mid-1940s when radiation was routinely used to treat cancer at Passavant Hospital (currently the Lurie Research Building) and Wesley Hospital (currently the Prentice Women’s Hospital). Those hospitals initially used orthovoltage and subsequently used 1 MeV beams from a resonant transformer.

Advances in clinical care and academics began in earnest with the recruitment of Dr. William T. Moss from Ellis Fishel State Cancer Hospital, Missouri, as the Medical Director of Radiation Oncology in the 1950s. Moss was one of the pioneers in the field. He established a joint radiation oncology/radiology residency program and, with the acquisition of a Cobalt-60 machine, moved Northwestern into the megavoltage-era. He also established the brachytherapy program and Radiation Biology Research. With his trainee, Dr. William N. Brand, he published one of the only two textbooks available at that time describing the techniques, indications and outcomes of treating cancer with radiation (the other book was written by Dr. Gilbert Fletcher). With Dr. Moss’ departure to Oregon, his prodigy Dr. William N. Brand was appointed Medical Director and Division Chief in 1974. During his tenure, linear accelerators, CT simulators, a hyperthermia unit and 3D treatment planning were established.

Dr. Bharat Mittal was appointed as Radiation Oncology Division Chief in 1993, and in 2006, he was named the chair of the newly created Department of Radiation Oncology at the Feinberg School of Medicine. In 1999, the clinical operation moved from the basement of the Wesley Pavilion to the newly built Galter Pavilion and subsequently expanded into the newly built Prentice Hospital in 2007. Over the past three decades, there has been steady clinical and academic growth, along with a strengthening of the culture of excellence, collaboration and patient safety. 

The department is equipped with the latest technology, including capabilities for 3D and 4D image-guided radiotherapy, MR-guided brachytherapy and intracranial and extracranial radiosurgery.

The training programs in Radiation Oncology have substantially expanded. The core Physician Residency Program has more than doubled in numbers. The Physics Residency Program was established in 2010. It has increased in number from one to two residents, and we have extended training from two to three years. The Radiation Therapy Training Program was established in 2003. Since then, it has doubled in size. Faculty actively participates in medical student education.

There has been a substantial expansion in clinical and laboratory research. Clinical research is done through Investigator Initiated Trials and the National Clinical Trials Networks (NCTN). Innovative laboratory research is being conducted by our scientists. We have had a steady growth in federally and non-federally sponsored projects and publications in high-impact journals. The department is consistently ranked in top 20 for NIH-funded research.