Medical physics pioneer Lester Skaggs, PhD, 1911-2009

April 15, 2009

Lester Skaggs

A pioneer in the use of radiation to treat cancer, Lester Skaggs, PhD, professor emeritus in the Departments of Radiology and of Radiation and Cellular Oncology at the University of Chicago Medical Center, died from complications of renal failure on Friday, April 3, at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago. He was 97.

One of the original practitioners of medical physics, Skaggs and colleague Lawrence Lanzl designed and helped build the cobalt radiation therapy unit and a linear accelerator for medical use at the University of Chicago, the first such devices in the United States. Prior to that, he was a key member of the Manhattan Project, based during World War II at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where he helped design, build and test the mechanism used to detonate the first atomic bomb.

Lester Skaggs

"Lester Skaggs was brilliant, one of the leaders in the field of medical physics and radiation therapy," said colleague Melvin Griem, MD, professor emeritus of radiation and cellular oncology at the University. "He combined that brilliance with the ability to make everyone around him smarter," Griem said. "He made his colleagues blossom. He made us look great."

"He was like a second father to me," said Franca Kuchnir, PhD, professor emerita of radiation and cellular oncology at the University and one of Skaggs's first post-doctoral fellows. "Those of us who have studied under his guidance and worked with him have been enriched by his deep knowledge of medical physics, his full dedication to education and his generous sharing of common sense and wisdom," she said.

Born Nov. 21, 1911, in Trenton, Missouri, Lester S. Skaggs grew up on a farm in northern Missouri. He attended a one-room grade school and rode a horse three miles to high school. His father expected him, the oldest of three children, to take over the farm, but Skaggs enjoyed designing and building gadgets and opted instead for a career in science. He earned his bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of Missouri in 1933 with a minor in mathematics, followed by a master's degree in physics in 1934. In 1935 he entered the nuclear physics graduate program at the University of Chicago, where he completed his PhD in 1939.

Skaggs took a part-time job with a radiation oncologist at nearby Michael Reese Hospital while working as a post-doctoral fellow in nuclear physics at the University of Chicago. He was soon drafted into the war effort, however, working from 1941 to 1943 for the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institute in Washington, DC, where he designed a system that used radio waves to detect proximity to an airplane and detonate anti-aircraft shells.

In 1943, he was transferred to the Los Alamos, New Mexico, headquarters of the Manhattan Project, the secret military effort led by Robert Oppenheimer to develop the atomic bomb. At Los Alamos, Skaggs was asked to adapt his anti-aircraft detection system into an infallible "fuse" for the first bomb. "He was told," Kuchnir said, "that the odds of the system failing should be no greater than one in a million."

After witnessing, from 20 miles away, the initial test explosion at Alamogordo, Skaggs realized that the initial plan did not leave enough time for the airplane that delivered the bomb to escape safely. "He had to find a fool-proof way to get that damn plane out of there," recalled Griem. So Skaggs and colleagues designed a proximity-based detonation device--triggered by distance from the ground, with two back-up systems--that allowed the plane another 30 seconds to get out of harm's way.

After the war, he increasingly focused on medical applications of radiation. In 1945, on loan from Michael Reese Hospital, he began working on a physics research project with Donald Kerst at the University of Illinois to extract an electron beam for medical use from a betatron, a radiation source Kerst had invented for physics experiments. A clinical application came sooner than expected. As the work progressed, one of the physics graduate students was diagnosed with a brain tumor for which there was no effective treatment. Skaggs was part of a team of scientists who quickly developed the technology to help their friend.

"This was a hush-hush affair," recalled Elisabeth Lanzl, who, with her husband Lawrence, was also part of the team. "It was all done late at night, after the staff had gone home. It was the first time high-energy radiation had been used for medical therapy. It was beneficial," she said, "shrinking the tumor," but not curative. "The young man did die from his cancer."

In 1948, Skaggs joined the faculty at the University of Chicago as an assistant professor of radiology. He was promoted to associate professor in 1949 and placed in charge of developing the radiation therapy facilities at the Argonne Cancer Research Hospital (ACRH), which was funded by the Atomic Energy Commission's "Atoms for Peace" program. When it opened in 1953, ACRH was the first hospital devoted to the use of radiation to treat cancer.

At ACRH, Skaggs and Lanzl designed a cobalt treatment unit, much of which they built in the ACRH and the University's physical sciences machine shops. Piece-by-piece installation of a linear accelerator, known as the Lineac followed. This required "eight years of design, engineering, construction and testing, at a cost of $450,000," said Kuchnir, but the unit, completed in 1959, attracted patients from all over the country. It provided "the greatest degree of control ever achieved over the penetration of high energy rays in medical use," according to the University's 1960 press release. The Lineac, which "consumed power equivalent to that of a town of 100,000," remained in clinical use for 34 years.

In the mid-1950's, Skaggs and Lanzl launched the first master's degree program in medical physics in the United States. The program expanded in the 1960's to include a PhD degree in medical physics and trained many of the leaders in the field.

Skaggs, who was promoted to full professor status in 1956, also designed and built one of the first analog computers for calculating the radiation dose to various tissues for use in planning radiation therapy. Completed in 1963, the electronic components, including 26 amplifiers, filled a small room.

In the 1970s, Kuchnir and Skaggs developed a method to produce neutrons for radiation therapy. "Ours was the first hospital-based fast-neutron therapy facility in the United States," Kuchnir recalled.

For most of his Chicago career, Skaggs and his family lived in Park Forest, IL, where he was designated a "distinguished citizen" in 1965. He and his wife, Ruth, were active in civic and church affairs.

The author or co-author of nearly 50 research publications in scientific journals, Skaggs was a Fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal College of Medicine and the American College of Radiology (Fellow in Physics).

In 1979, at age 67, after 30 years of service, Skaggs retired from the University and began a new job at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he developed a neutron-therapy facility using a cyclotron. He returned to the U.S. in 1984.

Since 2003, Skaggs and his wife lived at Montgomery Place, an assisted living facility near the University of Chicago. Mrs. Skaggs died in October, 2005.

Skaggs is survived by his sister, Lillian Foster of Laredo, MO; his three children: Margaret Skaggs of New York, NY; John Skaggs of Lexington, KY; and Mary Anderson of Chicago; and three grandchildren. Memorial services are planned for May 16 at both Montgomery Place, 5550 South Shore Drive, Chicago, and Faith United Protestant Church in Park Forest, IL. His ashes will be buried at Rural Dale Church, Trenton, MO, on May 30.

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