The Great American Smokeout

Every year on the third Thursday of November, the American Cancer Society encourages all smokers to avoid using cigarettes for 24 hours for the Great American Smokeout event. The hope is that by refraining from smoking for one single day, and instead learning more about the many health benefits of quitting for good, smokers will be taking an important step toward a healthier life and reducing their cancer risk.

Although smoking tobacco has been popular for centuries, it wasn’t until the 1950s that researchers were able to definitively prove that smoking led to higher risk of developing lung cancer. A Washington University medical student took a leading role in this research.

In 1950, fourth-year student Ernst Wynder, together with the medical school’s internationally renowned Head of Surgery Evarts Graham, published a statistical study showing that 96.5 percent of the 684 lung cancer patients they interviewed had been cigarette smokers. This article, titled “Tobacco smoking as a possible etiologic factor in bronchogenic carcinoma” was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (volume 143, issue 4, pages 329-336) and was one of the earliest reports to highlight the connection between habitual smoking and the development of lung cancer.

In 1953, Wynder and Graham partnered with Research Assistant Adele Croninger of the medical school’s tobacco tar lab to follow up on their earlier findings with another landmark publication, “Experimental Production of Carcinoma with Cigarette Tar” in the journal Cancer Research (volume 13, issue 12, pages 855-864). For this study, a “smoking apparatus” was used to collect tar from cigarettes which was then mixed with acetone and applied to the backs of laboratory mice three times per week. In one experiment detailed in this report, within just one year of beginning the tri-weekly applications, 59 percent of the 81 mice tested developed papilloma, and 44.4 percent of the 81 mice developed epidermoid cancer of the skin. This experiment represented the first laboratory confirmation of the connection between smoking and lung cancer.

Due to the popularity of smoking among Americans in the 1950s, these distressing reports accelerated tobacco research. Until the 1950s, researchers had been hesitant to state definitively that smoking causes cancer because a cancer-causing agent had yet to be identified in cigarettes. However, as Graham is quoted in the Nov. 30, 1953, issue of Time magazine (pages 60-63): “This shows conclusively that there is something in cigarette smoke which can produce cancer. This is no longer merely a possibility. Our experiments have proved it beyond any doubt.”

For more information about Wynder, Graham and Croninger’s groundbreaking research, see the Evarts Graham Papers at Becker Library.