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Cedar Rapids doctor Arthur Erskine pioneered X-ray, radiology treatment

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The American Cancer Society presented this Bronze Medal and a citation to Arthur Erskine just before his death, honoring
The American Cancer Society presented this Bronze Medal and a citation to Arthur Erskine just before his death, honoring him as the Iowan who contributed the most to cancer control. (Joe Coffey, The History Center)
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Dr. Arthur Wright Erskine of Cedar Rapids sacrificed life and limb as a pioneer in the fields of radiology and cancer research. He also played a key role in amplifying the voices and agency of women as medical patients.

Erskine was born in Pennsylvania in 1885. He received his medical degree from Baltimore Medical College in 1908 and did further research at Johns Hopkins University. He opened a general practice in Bessemer, Pa, but it didn’t do very well.

In 1912, he moved to Cedar Rapids to address a shortage of doctors.

The doctoring business in Iowa wasn’t that lucrative either. Erskine told stories of literally having two dimes to his name before arranging to work for a surgeon in the city. The surgeon was keen on using Erskine’s X-ray machine.

People were fascinated by X-ray machines in the 1910s but didn’t trust them. Their uses weren’t fully understood, standardized or even safe. Erskine lost three fingers on his right hand due to radiation exposure. He endured more than 30 operations and skin grafts to address the burns and other damage that came with his chosen field.

Radiology Pioneer

Erskine committed his life to improving the practice of radiology. The annals of medical history tell of his experimental work with ionization measurements and anode-skin-distance, two critical variables in radiology.

He is noted for his leadership in adopting the “r” as the international measurement for roentgen radiation.

On the business side of things, he helped establish standards for what doctors charged for X-rays. He also invented a series of adjustable specula to aid in transvaginal radiotherapy.

Erskine published more than 40 papers on X-ray technique and therapy. He served on the boards and executive committees of local, state, national and international radiology and cancer organizations. He started the radiology programs at both Mercy and St. Luke’s hospitals, heading both departments until his death. He oversaw the three editions of his book, “Practical X-ray Treatment.” There would be more editions after his death.

Erskine was essentially an idea guy — a thinker and tinkerer, fascinated by the idea that technology could help us see inside the body and treat its problems.

Listening To Women

He also was keenly aware of the human side of medicine.

Early in the 20th century, women were not always treated kindly in medical settings. Doctors would blame them for causing their ailments, even if those ailments weren’t understood. A breast cancer diagnosis often came with a radical mastectomy which, back then, usually resulted in the woman no longer being able to use her arms.

The doctors were men, and the cultural norms involved women “submitting” to the male doctor’s opinion.

But Erskine saw the value of learning from the other side of the stethoscope. He advocated the notion of physicians actually listening to a patient’s concerns. Instead of forcing women into procedures they were understandably reluctant to undergo, Erskine believed in offering women choices of treatment.

With his growing expertise in the X-ray’s role in finding and treating breast and uterine cancer, Erskine was among the first researchers to champion early detection. He published research about how radiation could kill cancer cells and essentially pioneered a new way of thinking: Radiation therapy had many advantages over aggressive surgery.

Erskine routinely spoke at women’s clubs in the state. He served on Iowa’s Women’s Field Army executive committee and participated in the Iowa Cancer Committee and the American Society for the Control of Cancer, a precursor to the American Cancer Society. He used his speaking engagements as opportunities to listen to even more women.

Talking About Cancer

One of his simplest professional observations — that women resisted early cancer detection and treatment due to the aggressive surgeries most doctors turned to — prompted him to do something most doctors would never think of at the time: campaign outside the doctor’s office to change the way people thought about cancer.

Talk of cancer, breasts and uteruses was not allowed on the radio back then, yet Erskine worked with the Women’s Field Army to secure radio time and educate the public.

In 1948, Erskine promoted an ambitious study that aimed to get every woman in Cedar Rapids over the age of 30 to have a Pap smear. It doesn’t appear that goal was reached, but the study was still a success — it found early-stage cancers that were effectively treated.

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The study also found that most women learned more about cancer, treatment and options from the campaign than from any other source, solidifying a practice of public awareness campaigns that continues to this day.

Erskine died of stroke-related paralysis in 1952 at the age of 67. His name is on the Monument to the X-ray and Radium Martyrs of All Nations in Hamburg, Germany, a memorial that commemorates those who died due to their work with the use of radiation.

Joe Coffey is a freelance writer and content marketer in Cedar Rapids. Comments: coffeygrande@gmail.com

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