What Is the History of Nuclear Medicine?

Nuclear Medicine is the use of radioactive molecules, known as radiopharmaceuticals, and imaging technology to diagnose and treat patients by studying how their organs are functioning. In other words, nuclear medicine looks at how the patient’s metabolism works, as opposed to an X-ray that studies just the structure or anatomy of the patient’s body. Nuclear medicine became common practice in the 1950’s after finding success in monitoring biochemical processes.

The Beginning of Nuclear Medicine

Nuclear medicine found its beginnings between the years 1934 and 1946. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact date as the field has elements of chemistry, medicine, engineering, and even physics that were combined over a period of time.

In 1946, Sam Seildin published a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association that stated I-131, a radioactive isotope of iodine, was successful in treating advanced thyroid cancer. This same isotope would be used in thyroid imaging and understanding thyroid function.

In 1950, Benedict Cassen developed the first scanning system, the rectilinear scanner, which captured an image of a patient’s thyroid glands after the radioactive iodine was administered. Nuclear medicine expanded with the addition of the Anger camera, a gamma camera that followed the motion of the radioactive molecules within the patient’s body in real time.

By 1971, nuclear medicine was officially a medical specialty with the Board of Nuclear Medicine forming in 1972.

Emergence of Nuclear Medicine: Function vs. Structure

Diagnosing diseases is difficult. This is because some diseases have similar symptoms and the disease may not always be externally apparent. Even if a disease is easily diagnosed, the medical professional must often figure out the extent of the disease. For example, gallbladder disease can be easily diagnosed and is common; however, figuring out if it’s a chronic or acute case may not be.

Imaging and nuclear medicine can help identify the type or phase of a disease. In the case of gallbladder disease, with a sonogram, the medical professional can physically see the gallstones, which is an indicator of chronic gallbladder disease. With radioactive isotopes and nuclear medicine scanning systems, called a HIDA scan, they can gather information from the gallbladder’s functions that wouldn’t be seen in regular X-rays or sonograms. If the gallbladder fills up, they can safely say that it is not an acute attack. If it does not fill up, then medical professionals will know that the patient is having an acute case of gallbladder disease.

Advancement of Nuclear Medicine Today

The two tools needed for nuclear medicine are: the radiopharmaceuticals and the imaging/scanning instruments. Often times, the symptoms a patient has will determine the type of radiopharmaceutical and machine that will be used. For example, the isotope I-131 only interacts with the thyroid gland, while another isotope would be used to interact with the gallbladder.

Scanning systems create 3-D and live imaging with cameras, computers, machinery, wires, and motors. Companies like ADAC, Siemens, GE and SMV develop nuclear medicine cameras and computers which provide clear and quality imaging by tracing the isotopes and the patient’s organs for an easy-to-read diagnosis.


Medical Imaging Technologies is your source for all of your nuclear medicine needs! Contact us today for information on parts, systems, computer upgrades and more.