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History of Nuclear Medicine

Nuclear medicine began more than 50 years ago and is now a vital medical specialty for both diagnosis and therapy of serious disease. Approximately 4,000 hospital-based nuclear medicine departments and perhaps 1,000 freestanding imaging centers in the United States perform about 12 million nuclear medicine imaging studies every year, helping to save countless lives.

Color thyroid study with nuclear medicine, orange area represents thyroid
and shows uptake of radionuclide. The outline of the jaw and neck are faintly visible in purple.

The origins of nuclear medicine stem from many scientific discoveries, most notably the discovery of x-rays in 1895 and the discovery of "artificial radioactivity" in the mid-1930s. A landmark event for nuclear medicine occurred in 1946 when a thyroid cancer patient's treatment with radioactive iodine led to complete disappearance of the patient's cancer. Wide-spread clinical use of nuclear medicine, started in the early 1950s as its use increased to measure the function of the thyroid and to diagnose thyroid disease and for the treatment of patients with hyperthyroidism.

During the mid 1960s, the use of nuclear medicine as a specialty discipline began to see exciting growth with significant advances in nuclear medicine technology. The 1970s brought the visualization of additional organs (besides the thyroid) with nuclear medicine, including liver and spleen scanning, brain tumor localization, and studies of the gastrointestinal track. The 1980s saw the use of nuclear medicine for diagnosing heart disease as well as the integration of digital computers to add additional power to the technique. Today, there are approximately 100 different nuclear medicine imaging procedures which provide information about nearly every organ system. Nuclear medicine is now an integral part of patient care and is extremely valuable in the early diagnosis, treatment and prevention of numerous medical conditions.

Updated: June 10, 2008