Babe Ruth was a baseball trailblazer, ushering in the live ball era and elevating baseball to an unprecedented place in the national consciousness, mostly by, you know, elevating the baseball. But did you know that he was also a pioneer in cancer treatment as well?
His doctors were anyway, as this article in Popular Science explains. Indeed, he was likely the first cancer patient to receive chemotherapy, a treatment which had only been developed a few years prior and which, before the Bambino, had only been tested on lab mice:
Miraculously, the drug worked. At least for a short time. Ruth started daily injections on June 29, 1947. In short order, Bikhazi reports, he gained back some of the weight he’d lost, reported less pain, and was finally able to swallow solid food. He continued chemotherapy for about six weeks and various radiation treatments for another year, as doctors cast about in search of a permanent cure. They never found one, and Ruth ultimately died of cancer on August 16, 1948, at the age of 53. But in the process of that trial and error treatment, Bikhazi reports, Ruth became perhaps the first patient to receive sequential radiation and chemotherapy. Now called “chemo-beamo,” this two-pronged approach is standard treatment for many cancers today.
As the article notes, Ruth’s treatments occasion some ethical questions. Partially related to the idea of using relatively untested treatments in humans. Partially related to the fact that, if he were not World Famous Athlete Babe Ruth, he would not have received such treatments. Partially because Ruth himself, it seems, was not really aware of the nature of the treatments he was receiving and, perhaps, did not even know that he had cancer.
The whole thing is fascinating, both in the manner in which it illuminates Ruth’s illness and death and in the way it helped advance the science of fighting cancer.