Chronicles of Cancer

Chronicles of cancer: A history of mammography, part 1



Medical technology is driven both by advances in science and by the demands of patients and physicians for improved outcomes. The history of mammography, for example, is tied to the scientific advancements in x-ray technology, which allowed physicians for the first time to peer inside a living body without a scalpel at hand. But mammography was also an outgrowth of the profound need of the surgeon to identify cancerous masses in the breast at an early-enough stage to attempt a cure, while simultaneously minimizing the radical nature of the surgery required.

And while seeing is believing, the need to see and verify what was seen in order to make life-and-death decisions drove the demand for improvements in the technology of mammography throughout most of the 20th century and beyond.

The tortuous path from the early and continuing snafus with contrast agents to the apparent failure of the promise of digital technology serves as a continuing reminder of the hopes and perils that developing medical technologies present. It will be interesting to see if further refinements to mammography, such as DBT, will enhance the technology enough to have a major impact on countless women’s lives, or if new developments in magnetic resonance imaging and ultrasound make traditional mammography a relic of the past.

Part 2 of this history will present the social dynamics intimately involved with the rise and promulgation of mammography and how social need and public fears and controversies affected its development and spread as much, if not more, than technological innovation.

This article could only touch upon the myriad of details and technologies involved in the history of mammography, and I urge interested readers to check out the relevant references for far more in-depth and fascinating stories from its complex and controversial past.


1. Felix EL, Rosen M, Earle D. “Curbing Our Enthusiasm for Surgical Innovation: Is It a Good Thing or Bad Thing?” The Great Debates, General Surgery News, 2018 Oct 17

2. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2020 Jun 23. doi: 10.1093/jnci/djaa080.

3. Nelson H et al. Screening for Breast Cancer: A Systematic Review to Update the 2009 U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Recommendation. Evidence Synthesis No. 124. (Rockville, Md.: U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 2016 Jan, pp. 29-49)4. Lerner, BH. “To See Today With the Eyes of Tomorrow: A History of Screening Mammography,” background paper for Patlak M et al., Mammography and Beyond: Developing Technologies for the Early Detection of Breast Cancer (Washington: National Academies Press, 2001).

5. Grady I, Hansen P. Chapter 28: Mammography in “Kuerer’s Breast Surgical Oncology”(New York: McGaw-Hill Medical, 2010)

6. Radiology. 2014 Nov;273(2 Suppl):S23-44.

7. Bassett LW, Kim CH. (2003) Chapter 1: Ductography in Dershaw DD (eds) “Imaging-Guided Interventional Breast Techniques” (New York: Springer, 2003, pp. 1-30).

8. Cuperschmid EM, Ribeiro de Campos TP. 2009 International Nuclear Atlantic Conference, Rio de Janeiro, Sept 27–Oct 2, 2009

9. Bioscience Microflora. 2000;19(2):107-16.

10. Cady B. New era in breast cancer. Impact of screening on disease presentation. Surg Oncol Clin N Am. 1997 Apr;6(2):195-202.

11. Egan R. “Mammography Technique.” Audiovisual presentation. (Washington: U.S. Public Health Service, 1965).

12. Zackrisson S, Houssami N. Chapter 13: Evolution of Mammography Screening: From Film Screen to Digital Breast Tomosynthesis in “Breast Cancer Screening: An Examination of Scientific Evidence” (Cambridge, Mass.: Academic Press, 2016, pp. 323-46).13. Melnikow J et al. Screening for breast cancer with digital breast tomosynthesis. Evidence Synthesis No. 125 (Rockville, Md.: U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 2016 Jan).

14. Newer breast screening technology may spot more cancers. Harvard Women’s Health Watch online, June 2019.

Mark Lesney is the editor of Hematology News and the managing editor of He has a PhD in plant virology and a PhD in the history of science, with a focus on the history of biotechnology and medicine. He has worked as a writer/editor for the American Chemical Society, and has served as an adjunct assistant professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular & cellular biology at Georgetown University, Washington.


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