Robert R. Wilson: Remembered as "Father of Proton Therapy" and Achievements in Physics and Medicine

Good scientist that he was, Robert Rathbun Wilson, PhD, probably would have demurred if he had been called the "father of proton therapy." He learned high-energy physics, after all, in the cradle of "big science," the Radiation Laboratory of Ernest O. Lawrence at the University of California, Berkeley.

He was also one of the Manhattan Project group that developed the atomic bomb, and headed an immense team of physicists that conceived, developed, built, and operated Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) outside Chicago. Dr. Wilson understood and practiced teamwork and collaboration.

Dr. Wilson might have demurred with a twinkle in his eye, however, for he was also very much an individualist. He was a real-life cowboy (born, appropriately enough, in Frontier, Wyoming) who probably did "learn to ride" 'fore he could stand.

He was a serious sculptor of international renown, whose works are displayed at many universities and research institutions, including Fermilab; he was a firmly committed advocate of human rights, whose directives on affirmative action (long before the phase was conceived) were posted conspicuously throughout Fermilab and remain to this day; and he championed unceasingly the peaceful use of atomic energy he helped to unleash.

The Proton Treatment Center at Loma Linda University Medical Center is one of those peaceful uses. It is, in a real sense, part of Robert Wilson's legacy.

Robert Wilson's seminal contribution to proton radiation therapy was made manifest in a paper he published more than a half-century ago. Titled "Radiological Use of Fast Protons" (Radiology 1946:47:487-91), the article's established the fundamental tenets and techniques that are being followed today at Loma Linda's Proton Treatment Center and at other proton therapy facilities around the world.

It was at a Fermilab conference in 1985 that James M. Slater, MD, FACR, chairman of Loma Linda's department of radiation medicine, approached Fermilab's director, Leon Lederman, PhD, and deputy director, Philip V. Livdahl, about the feasibility of building a hospital-based proton synchrotron. Mr. Livdahl has long shared Dr. Wilson's interest in the medical use of protons and opined that Fermilab could do so. Also at the 1985 meeting, Dr. Wilson became an avid supporter of the evolving Loma Linda facility and followed its construction to completion and on through treatment of its first patient.

On the occasion of the Proton Treatment Center's fifth anniversary (it has now reached its tenth anniversary), Dr. Wilson attended as guest of honor and was present when one of the treatment gantries was named for him.

Creativity threaded through Dr. Wilson's entire life. Physical evidence of his creativity may be found in many places, but most notably at Fermilab, which can be considered his monument. He designed the main building, now called Robert Rathbun Wilson Hall. It was inspired by the medieval cathedral at Beauvais, France, but the building as it now stands melds a distinct sense of modern functionality with the soaring spirit of the gothic. If there ever was a cathedral of science, this it is.

Dr. Wilson also created many sculptures that adorn the Fermi campus, and his artist's eye influenced almost everything on the campus, even the power lines; some think they resemble Japanese script characters, others see the Greek letter pi.

His "Broken Symmetry", which spans one of the entrances to Fermilab, appears symmetrical only when viewed from below; it is asymmetrical when viewed from any other angle. The piece symbolizes the mission of Fermilab and, indeed, of the scientific process itself; to look at problems from all sides, and to discover truth by so doing.

Perhaps the essence of Dr. Wilson's creative sense is found in the four-mile long main accelerator ring at Fermilab; the ring is visible from the air, but didn't have to be; Dr. Wilson's design called for a twenty-foot-high berm above the entire ring, making it apparent from the air as a rise in the otherwise flat Illinois prairie. It ties the Fermilab campus together visually when seen from above and bids one pause to look around when approached at ground level.

The berm is there for aesthetic reasons. It is the sort of statement an artist would make. Dr. Wilson once said: "If I wasn't being creative, I thought I was just wasting my time." In his science and in his art, Robert Wilson wasted very little time indeed.


Dr. Wilson died on January 16, 2000, at his home in Ithaca, New York.

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