World Health Day: Canadian Inventions that have Helped Heal the World

April 7, 2023, marks the 75th Anniversary of World Health Day. Started in 1948, World Health Day is designed to draw attention to a specific health topic of concern to people across the globe. This year, the theme is ‘Health for All’. As an Occupational Health and Safety company dedicated to protecting your people, property and our planet, we wanted to explore how ‘The Great White North’ has contributed to health across the globe.

First noted in 3500 BCE in Ancient Egypt, diabetes was long considered a death sentence. Those diagnosed with the disease would weaken over time before they fell into a coma and sadly, died. By the 18th century, it was known that diet played a role in diabetes. As a result, many doctors recommended low-calorie diets (sometimes as low as 400 calories a day) as a way to live longer with the disease.

In January 1922, the team of Sir Fredrick Banting, Charles Best, JJR Macleod and James Collip successfully treated a 13-year-old boy who was close to death at Toronto General Hospital. They administered an extract, – now known as insulin – which “miraculously” dropped blood and urine sugar levels and effectively brought the boy back from death.

“By 1923, insulin production expanded to be able to supply the Canadian-invented, life-saving drug to diabetes patients around the world.”

Old insulin vial/ syringe
The ‘Cobalt Bomb’
In the Fall of 1951, two teams, one at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon3 and one at Victoria Hospital in London, Ontario4, delivered the world’s first cancer treatments using Cobalt-60 radiation. These teams included individuals such as Drs. Ivan Smith4, Harold Jones, E.L Harrington, and Sylvia Fedoruk.

“Dubbed the ‘Cobalt Bomb’, this revolutionary radiation treatment enabled tumors deep within the body to be treated effectively.”Such treatment had an immediate impact on the survival rate for these previously difficult-to-access cancers. One of the first patients, a 43-year-old woman with a reportedly incurable cancer, was successfully treated and lived to the age of 90. Since 1951, millions of cancer patients around the world have been treated using this technology which continues in use to this day.

The Cardiac Pacemaker
In 1949, Drs. Wilfred Bigelow and John Carter Callaghan were trying to understand how hypothermia could slow the beating of the heart before surgery, and thus allow for heart surgery. One critical problem arose – the heart would stop beating as it cooled, which meant blood was no longer circulating around the body, which would lead to death. After noticing that electrical pulses from a nearby probe were able to restart the heart and control the rhythm, they reached out to Dr. John A. (Jack) Hopps, an electrical engineer, to see if he could build a machine that could restore the heartbeat.

In 1950, Dr. Hopps had created an external pacemaker – about the size of microwave – from which an insulated wire could be inserted into the heart through the jugular vein. The pacemaker successfully restarted a dog’s heart, and restored its normal rhythm. The invention spurred decades of innovation and exploration, which contributed to the development of the implantable pacemaker: the heartbeat controlling device could now be left within the chest .

“Millions of hearts (and lives!) across the globe have been saved by the groundwork laid by Canadian Drs. Hopps, Bigelow and Callaghan.”
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The Revolutionary Treatment of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and Breast Cancer
Dr. Vera Peters revolutionized the treatment of not one, but two types of cancer: Hodgkin’s lymphoma and breast cancer.

Up until the 1970s, Hodgkin’s lymphoma was considered a death sentence:an incurable and ultimately fatal type of cancer. From the late 1940s to the mid 1950s, Dr. Peters analyzed records of Hodgkin’s patients who had received radiation treatment and made two critical observations:

1. The length of survival time was increased dramatically for patients who had radiation treatment in the earlier stages of the disease, and
2. High dose radiation increased survival rates for those with Stage 1 Hodgkin’s lymphoma.With this, she proposed early, high-dose radiation treatment as an effective way to treat Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Despite the findings, the medical community was slow to accept them, and it took until the 1970s before this treatment protocol was adopted.

“Largely thanks to Dr. Vera Peters, Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a highly treatable form of cancer today, with a 5-year survival rate of 85%.”
Breast cancer treatment up until the 1970s was highly invasive and involved a radical mastectomy: the removal of the entire breast and underlying chest muscles. However, Dr. Peters noted that many patients experienced negative emotional and psychological effects following the treatment. Again, she turned to the patient case files, and in 1967 noted that those who received an uncommon treatment plan involving a lumpectomy (the removal of only cancerous tissue while preserving the non-cancerous breast tissue) followed by radiation had the same medical outcomes as those who received a radical mastectomy, but with fewer emotional and psychological effects! Today, Dr. Peters’ method of a lumpectomy followed by radiation is now the standard for the treatment of early-stage breast cancer.

Dr. John Hopps in operating theatre

Canada has been home to many great women and men who have stood at the edge of what was possible and reached beyond. From the pacemaker to cancer treatment, from insulin to cobalt radiation, Canadians have contributed to ‘Health For All’ for over 100 years!

ECOH believes in Health For All and is committed to protecting your people, property and our planet. We perform occupational health and safety and environmental assessments for a myriad of industries. Contact us for an environmental health and safety audit for your place of business!


1 Smith, Kyle. “Before Banting: Treatments for Diabetes in the Pre-Insulin Era.” Banting House National Historic Site of Canada, July 29, 2016.

2 Bliss, Michael. “The Discovery of Insulin.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Article published August 19, 2015; Last Edited December 17, 2021.

3 “Timeline of Cobalt-60 Technology.” Cobalt-60. University of Saskatchewan. Accessed March 16, 2023.

4 “Celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the World’s First Cancer Treatment with Cobalt-60 Radiation.” London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC), October 27, 2011.

5 Bilbao, Maya. “Cardiac Pacemaker.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Article published September 17, 2021; Last Edited September 17, 2021.

6 Raymond, Katrine. “Vera Peters.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Article published November 11, 2022; Last Edited November 11, 2022.

7 “Survival Statistics for Hodgkin Lymphoma.” Canadian Cancer Society. Accessed March 16, 2023.

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