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Memory

Minas residents against cancer

A Belo Horizonte institute pioneered the use of radiation therapy to treat tumors

Doctor Borges da Costa (with moustache) and scientist Marie Curie (center) during her visit to the Radium Institute in Belo Horizonte in 1926

Medicine Memory Center at the Federal University of Minas Gerais Doctor Borges da Costa (with moustache) and scientist Marie Curie (center) during her visit to the Radium Institute in Belo Horizonte in 1926Medicine Memory Center at the Federal University of Minas Gerais

In August 1926, after a long journey from Paris, Polish chemist Marie Curie disembarked in Belo Horizonte. She was there to attend a conference at the Minas Gerais School of Medicine on the subject of radiation therapy and its potential applications in medicine. In her briefcase, the laureate who had been awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics and the1911 prize in Chemistry brought two radium needles that were used to irradiate tumors. During her visit, the scientist took advantage of an opportunity to visit the Belo Horizonte Radium Institute—the first hospital in Brazil to specialize in the use of radiation therapy to fight cancer—and to donate the needles. The circumstances that had permitted the Institute’s establishment four years earlier, in September 1922, arose in the context of a crusade against the disease that was being waged in the early 20th century, especially in Europe. It had encouraged Brazilian doctors such as Eduardo Borges Ribeiro da Costa to expand their research in radiation therapy.

Laying the cornerstone of the Institute in 1921

Medicine Memory Center at the Federal University of Minas Gerais Laying the cornerstone of the Institute in 1921Medicine Memory Center at the Federal University of Minas Gerais

In 1920, after returning from a period of studies in Europe during which he met Marie Curie and became acquainted with her work, the young physician found himself faced with an increase in the number of cancer cases in Minas Gerais. Borges da Costa, who specialized in removing tumors with a scalpel, obtained support from Arthur da Silva Bernardes, then president of Minas Gerais State, for construction of the Radium Institute on land behind the School of Medicine of the University of Belo Horizonte—now the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). The purpose of the institute was the study and therapeutic application of X-rays and rays emitted by radium, a chemical element identified in 1898 by Marie Curie and her husband Pierre. Those technologies were not only recent, but difficult to manipulate. Administered in the correct dose, radiation was efficient in killing the tumor, but any mistake in dosage could damage nearby healthy tissue.

Façade of the building that housed the hospital

Medicine Memory Center at the Federal University of Minas Gerais Façade of the building that housed the hospitalMedicine Memory Center at the Federal University of Minas Gerais

In 1924, Belo Horizonte, with a population of 75,000, recorded 56 deaths from cancer. This is why the 1922 inauguration of the Radium Institute represented much more than the establishment of the first cancer hospital in Brazil, says historian Ethel Mizrahy Cuperschmid, from the Medicine Memory Center at UFMG who, with her colleague, Maria do Carmo Salazar Martins, studied the records of the hospital’s early years. “With its radioactive needles, other equipment, and modern doctors, the institute attracted patients from all over Brazil,” she notes. The two historians rescued some of the history and practices of the institute by analyzing a patient record book that they found in one of the building’s wings that was about to be renovated.

Patient record book

Bruna Carvalho Patient record bookBruna Carvalho

In its 199 pages, some quite frayed, others attacked by moths and termites, the book contains the names, ages, birthplaces, diagnoses, dates of death and details of the treatment of 1,653 people who had been diagnosed with some kind of cancer between 1923 and 1935. During that 12-year period, 481 people died in the hospital, 45.3% of them from the disease, according to figures found in the document that is now being preserved by the UFMG Medicine Memory Center. The book also mentions people who had been cared for after enduring long trips from their home states in order to be treated at the Institute. In those days, physicians had few alternatives: surgical removal of the tumor, which also included removing a large area of healthy tissue in order to prevent recurrence of the disease, or destruction of the tumor with radiation. “It was a choice between a hot ray and a cold knife,” one of the researchers observed in an article detailing his analyses, published in the journal History, Science, Health – Manguinhos.

With support from public funds, the Institute purchased radium from France; the dosage certificates were signed by Marie Curie. The building designed to house the hospital had wide corridors and doorways, and big windows in order to make the rooms brighter and more airy. In 1950, the institute was renamed the Borges da Costa Institute in tribute to its founder who had died that year. In 1964, it was again renamed, this time as the Borges da Costa Hospital. The building, now restored, is currently used as an outpatient clinic for cancer patients. Radiation therapy is currently administered at other Belo Horizonte hospitals.

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