In 1940, just one year after Ernest O. Lawrence won the Nobel Prize for his invention of the cyclotron, William Myers attended a lecture by Ernest’s brother John Lawrence on the potential uses of the cyclotron in medicine. The cyclotron was one of the earliest sub-atomic particle accelerators. When accelerated particles in the cyclotron struck ordinary nucleai radioisotopes were produced. Lawrence pointed out that, at times, these radioisotopes had potential uses for medicine. Lawrence’s lecture ignited Myers’s interest in what was to become his life-long research pursuit: using the cyclotron to develop radioactive isotopes for medical use.
Myers (1908-1988) made many contributions to nuclear medicine and was instrumental in bringing the cyclotron to the Physics Department at Ohio State in 1941. In 1948, he introduced cobalt-60 as a substitute for radium in cancer treatment, in 1952, he and Benjamin H. Colmery introduced gold-198 as a replacement for radon-222 in permanent seed implantation for cancer. Myers was also instrumental in the development of radioisotopes for diagnostic and investigative medicine. He introduced more radioisotopes into nuclear medicine than any other individual – eleven in all.
Born in Toledo, Ohio, Myers was a son of a farmer and a factory worker. Myers’s parents divorced when he was very young, and as a result, he lived in an orphanage for a number of years. After remarrying, his father reunited the family and moved into a homestead in Alberta, Canada. As a boy, Myers helped build the family log cabin and support the family by hunting and fishing. Myers rode ten miles by horse to attend the local school. However, he left home and school as a teenager to support himself as a photographer and waiter. Myers eventually returned to his family, and to school. A decent student whose grades were not always stellar, he excelled in the sciences, particularly in chemistry. Myers graduated from Wauseaon High School and won a competitive tuition scholarship to The Ohio State University. The Myers Collection contains his master’s thesis, dissertation, and course work that document his years at The Ohio State University, where he supported himself as a barber and a teaching assistant in chemistry. By attending thirty-nine consecutive quarters, Myers earned his PhD in physical chemistry in 1939 and his MD in 1941.
The Myers Collection also contains the papers of his wife Florence Lenahan Myers. Myers and Lenahan met in a neuroanatomy class in 1938 and were married in 1940 – the same year that Lenahan earned her MD. Lenahan was one of only three female medical doctors to graduate that year. His “favorite wife,” as Myers affectionately called her, was a physician in Columbus for thirty-five years. Lenahan was one of the few doctors who remained in private practice in the Columbus, Ohio area during World War II. She made house calls in a rural area and often accepted canned goods, and even live chickens, for payment. In 1944, she and Myers were the first doctors to use penicillin in Columbus, and in 1945, they co-authored the article, “A Case of Osteomyelitis Treated with Penicillin with Unusual Bacteriological Findings.”
A radiation secretary officer and radiation monitor, Myers served during Operation Crossroads, the joint Army and Navy nuclear weapons test series that took place in the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands and comprised the first post-World War II nuclear bombing tests was. A highlight of the Myers Collection are the letters he wrote in 1946 to Lenahan describing his experience. The series consisted of two tests, Able and Baker, each using the same type of MK 3A fision bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. Able was the first test designed to study the effects of the atomic bomb on naval vessels, planes, and animals. Utilizing an airburst-type detonation, Able produced radiation contamination that quickly dissipated. Baker, on the other hand, employed a sub-surface burst and yielded very differenct results: an explosion that bathed the fleet in radioactive mist and debris and required close to a year of de-contamination efforts. All personnel were exposed to unhealthy levels of radiation, but in his job as monitor, Myers had the greatest risk of harmful exposure. This experience cemented his interest in what he called “atoms for peace.”
Myers cultivated professional and personal relationships with Nobel Prize winners and other important figures in the fields of chemistry, physics and nuclear medicine at hospitals and research centers throughout the world. A member of the Society of Nuclear Medicine since its inaugural year, Myers remained active in the organization throughout his long career and served as the society’s historian for 13 years (1973-1986). During this time, he published many articles documenting the history of nuclear medicine in the societies journal The Journal of Nuclear Medicine. He also regularly corresponded with various United States Government agencies, including the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.
An active member of the faculty photography club and an avid photographer, Myers shot many of the 3, 840 photographic prints, 4,508 negatives, and 18,400 slides in the collection. Myers’s photographic subjects include nuclear medicine pioneers, historical OSU Medical Center events, and nuclear medicine equipment. Myers was among the first researchers employing radiation in medical studies and counted among his friends many of the early innovators who are mentioned in a previous paragraph as recipients of his letters. Myers was particularly proud of the photograph he took of Madame Marie Curie’s daughter Irene Joliot-Curie, which he donated to the Institut du Radium at the University of Paris.
Myers pioneered safety standards for nuclear waste as well as the use of radioisotopes for medical use. As a faculty member at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, Myers researched and taught for more than forty years. He taught the university’s first radiation biology course (the first course in the world to be taught by a physician), held faculty positions in the departments of medicine, physiology, and radiology, and earned emeritus professor status in 1979. Additionally, he served as visiting professor of biophysics at the University of California, Berkeley (1970s) and Cornell University (1980s). Myers also spent considerable time researching with larger cyclotrons at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Myers was a prolific author, publishing over 200 articles during his lifetime.
Throughout his career, Myers championed the cyclotron. With Myers as its backer, OSU acquired one of the first cyclotrons in the world and was one of the first universities to make short-lived radionucledes for medical use. However, the development of the nuclear reactor, which could produce larger quantities of radioisotopes than the cyclotron, began to put cyclotrons on the back burner. As Myers’s career progressed, he studied radionuclides with progressively shorter half-lives. Many of these shorter-lived radionuclides could not remain radioactive in transit from a large nuclear reactor and could be better produced in a cyclotron. Myers argued that every hospital should have its own cyclotron. Through continuing research with cyclotrons, Myers played a large rold in their resurgence in the 1990s. For his continuing role as proponent of the cyclotron, Henry Wagner, present historian of the Society of Nuclear Medicine and co-author of Atoms for Life: a Personal History of Nuclear Medicine, called Myers the “godfather of the cyclotron.” This is a title he greatly deserves.