A Short History of Mesothelioma

In 1912, a veteran physician teaching at the University of Dresden called his students together for a special seminar. It was an opportunity for them to study the pathology of a disease so rare, the doctor had seen only one other case in forty years, and he doubted his students would ever see it again. The disease was lung cancer and sadly, the doctor was wrong. Within a quarter century, this formerly unusual disease would be seen all too often. Prior to 1960, mesothelioma was a subject of debate as to whether or not it was a form of lung cancer, or a distinct form of carcinoma. The first doctor to possibly recognize mesothelioma was the 18th-century physician Joseph Lieutaud (1703-1780). Lieutaud, personal physician to King Louis XVI, wrote a report in 1767, describing two cases that modern medical researchers agree was likely to have been malignant mesothelioma. Of course, asbestos was nothing new. The ancient Romans used the material for “everlasting wicks” in oil lamps.

The late eighth-century to early ninth-century Frankish King Charlemagne was said to have owned an asbestos tablecloth, with which he amazed his guests by throwing it into the fireplace in order to clean it. In 1870, the first histological description of mesothelioma was published by a physician identified as “E. Wagner”. The differentiation between the benign (localized) and malignant (spreading) forms of the disease was established by 1931. However, there was debate as to whether or not asbestos was the causative factor, although asbestos was known to cause respiratory disease as early as 1897. By 1960, a medical researcher by the name of J.C. Wagner had completed a study of 33 cases of mesothelioma among people living in the Asbestos Hills of Cape Province, South Africa. A later addendum to the report of this study added an additional 14 cases. All of the victims were aged between 31 and 68 and all had lived near an asbestos mining facility, though not all had worked there. The 1960 Wagner study established mesothelioma as a carcinoma distinct from lung cancer proper. It also showed that the disease was not just an occupational one; it was enough simply to live in proximity to asbestos. All of the subjects in the Wagner study had suffered asbestos exposure from childhood.