How are stem cells, nukes, and bikini experts connected?
Let’s go back in time a bit…
The idea of stem cells has been around more than a century. For example Dr. Artur Pappenheim made a cell fate tree including stem cells in 1905. You can read more about this amazing, more than 100-year old stem cell model in my book, Stem Cells: An Insider’s Guide. Even earlier in 1885, Dr. August Weismann discussed stem cells using the term “germ plasm” and in 1868 seems to be one of the earliest ever mentions of stem cells in science by Ernst Haeckel, who had a model including “stammzelle’, which means “stem cell” in German.
So the reality is that scientists have been thinking about stem cells for at least almost 150 years.
I was curious what the first ever mention of “stem cells” or “stem cell” was in the media. I’m not sure, but I did check it out in the NY Times. When did this great paper first mention these great cells?
The September 19, 1948 edition contained the first ever mention of “stem cell” in the NY Times that I could find. Nuclear tests on Bikini Island (aka Bikini Atoll) had been going on for some time and scientists in the military were studying the effects on animals including goats. They noted that the “stem cell” component of bone was unusually resistant to radiation:
The white cells were extremely susceptible, but the recticulum, or “stem cell” of the bone marrow, was ray resistant.
Ray in this case refers to “atomic rays” or radiation. Recticulum appears to be an alternative spelling of reticulum.
The April 21, 1949 edition is the first mention of “stem cells” in the NY Times. The topic of the piece is similar to that of the 1948 article, but contains more on stem cells. The piece is entitled “Some blood cells resist radiation” with subtitle “Finding Spurs Recovery Hope for Atomic Victims, Bikini Expert Reports in Detroit”. Now we are talking about regenerative or cellular medicine way back 65 years ago. It was reported that radiation exposure victims whose stem cells had survived had the best chance to survive overall.
For you history buffs, just to show how long ago this was, the all-knowing Wikipedia says that the bikini swimsuit was “invented” or at least given that name around 1946, just a few years before these articles. Thus, readers of the NY Times piece in 1949 that alludes to a “Bikini Expert” would likely have not thought of a bathing suit. Although now, if you can believe it, there is an electric stem cell bra (see “Stranger than fiction: the electric stem cell bra for breast enlargement“.
The history of stem cells is far more complicated than I ever imagined until a few years ago. Keep in mind that stem cell history is being made today too with new discoveries.