Dr. William Coley

The father of cancer immunotherapy

Dr William Coley
Dr. William Coley (center), discovered that stimulating a patient's immune system with bacteria could cure a patient of cancer.

A timeline of Dr. Coley's life

  • 1862 - Born in Westfield, Connecticut.
  • 1888 - Began internship at New York Cancer Hospital.
  • 1890 - Following the death of a patient from sarcoma, Dr. Coley began studying the records of other sarcoma patients at New York Cancer Hospital.
  • 1890s - He found records of another patient, Fred Stein, whose tumor disappeared following a bacterial infection. Intrigued, he located the patient and found that seven years later he was still healthy.
  • 1891 - Dr. Coley began treating cancer patients by injecting them with bacteria. At first he used live bacteria. Later he used dead bacteria to avoid the risk of infecting the patient. The dead bacteria was known as Coley's Toxin.
  • 1901 - Newly-discovered radiation treatment eclipsed Dr. Coley's bacterial treatment and it fell out of favor.
  • 1936 - Death of Dr. Coley.
  • 1953 - Helen Coley Nauts, Dr. Coley's daughter, founded Cancer Research Institude to continue her father's work.
  • 2005 - Renewed interest in using bacteria to stimulate the immune system to fight cancer.
Dr. Coley lacked a scientific explanation for his results and his methods and record-keeping were not rigorous. This, and the allure of radiation treatment, kept his methods from gaining great acceptance. Today, the importance of the immune system in cancer treatment is widely recognized and the subject of intense research.