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Advances that led to nuclear medicine earn Historic Chemical Landmark designation

Medical use of radioiodine by Saul Hertz helped lay the foundation for the field

by Sophie Rovner, ACS staff
January 13, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 2

Darby sits in a chair surrounded by a medical device. Hertz stands at the controls.
Credit: Dr. Saul Hertz Archives
Saul Hertz (right) and his colleague Doris Darby demonstrate the use of a device to measure the amount of radioactive iodine absorbed by the thyroid gland in the 1940s.

The development of the medical use of radioiodine (RAI)—a seminal scientific discovery of the 20th century—was honored with the American Chemical Society’s National Historic Chemical Landmark designation. The dedication ceremony for the landmark was held on Oct. 8, 2021. The event took place at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, where this lifesaving advance by Saul Hertz had its genesis more than 80 years ago and helped lay the foundation for the field of nuclear medicine.

The story began in the 1930s with Hertz, who was chief of MGH’s Thyroid Clinic. At the time, scientists had recently begun producing new radioactive isotopes during basic research. In 1936, Hertz realized it might be possible to make iodine radioactive and to use it as a radiopharmaceutical. He surmised that it could be administered to patients as a source of internal radiation to diagnose and treat diseases of the thyroid, which accumulates iodine.

Soon thereafter, Hertz and Arthur Roberts, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began preclinical studies with RAI. On March 31, 1941, they administered the first human treatment, using RAI produced at MIT to treat a person with hyperthyroidism, also known as an overactive thyroid. Hertz and others later used RAI to diagnose and treat cancer.

This discovery represents an historical moment in the history of medical science, as well as chemistry
Andrew Scholte, former chair, ACS Northeastern Section

“These advances—and discoveries by other researchers—laid the foundation for the modern field of nuclear medicine,” says ACS Immediate Past President H. N. Cheng. “Radioiodine and other radiopharmaceuticals are now routinely used in diagnostic imaging and treatment of disease, saving and improving the lives of millions of people.”

“In the decades since this landmark work, the techniques and tools used in RAI therapy have been refined and enhanced, but the foundation of this critical therapy has persevered, restoring health and preserving quality of life for those with thyroid disease, including thyroid cancer,” says Gilbert Daniels, codirector of MGH Thyroid Associates.

Two people stand next to an easel bearing a National Historic Chemical Landmark Plaque. Lee holds a photo of Saul Hertz.
Credit: Massachusetts General Hospital Photography
ACS District I director Katherine L. Lee (left) and Anna W. Sromek, 2021 past chair of the Northeastern Section of the American Chemical Society, with a photo of Saul Hertz and the landmark plaque at the dedication ceremony at Massachusetts General Hospital

“Dr. Hertz was a pioneer in the field of therapeutic nuclear medicine and was the first to administer therapeutic doses of radioactive iodine to treat thyroid disease,” says Andrew Scholte, who was chair of the Northeastern Section of ACS when it sponsored the nomination for the landmark. “Today, radioactive iodine remains the preferred diagnostic tool and treatment for hyperthyroidism. This discovery represents an historical moment in the history of medical science, as well as chemistry.”

“My father’s discovery of the medical uses of RAI leaves a dynamic legacy,” says Barbara Hertz, curator of the Dr. Saul Hertz Archives. “New therapies and imaging agents continue to build on his seminal work. In addition to diagnosing and treating thyroid tumors, radiopharmaceuticals are now being used to target many other types of cancers, including neuroendocrine tumors, prostate cancer, metastatic bone cancer, and neuroblastoma, as well as in the palliative treatment of liver cancer.”

This is the second National Historic Chemical Landmark in Massachusetts. The state’s other landmark celebrates the development of Polaroid instant photography. “In both cases,” Cheng says, “these noteworthy achievements show that chemistry truly is part of our everyday lives.”

ACS established the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program in 1992 to recognize seminal events in the history of chemistry and to increase awareness of the contributions of chemistry to society. Past landmarks include the discovery and production of penicillin, the invention of synthetic plastics, and the works of such notable scientific figures as educator George Washington Carver and environmentalist Rachel Carson. For more information, visit


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