Evelyne Cerf-Pecher’s book on her father, Dr Charles Pecher. The Story in English. Part 2 of transcript
Evelyne Cerf-Pecher’s book on her father, Dr Charles Pecher. The Story in English. Part 2 of transcript
Page 222 continued
LET US NOW return to the medical studies my father began in 1932. He
also loved physics and sometimes wondered if he should not switch to
that field. He was particularly fascinated by the developments in nuclear
science and was very excited when artificial radioactivity was discovered
(1934). During his last years at the University of Brussels, he gave two lecture
at the the Societe de Physique on the biological applications of artificial radioactivity.
And, without delay after obtaining his M.D. degree in July 1939, he married and left for the U.S.A. with a one year Belgian American Educational Foundation (B.A.E.F.) fellowship. His plan was to pursue studies in a field now known as nuclear medicine.
After one semester at the Harvard University (Cambridge, Mass.) consecrated to
to specialized courses, he was accepted, in February of 1940, by
Prof. Ernest O. Lawrence at the Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, Cal.
He was much impressed by the kindness of the staff, and by the close
cooperation between physicists and biologists, and “felt very quickly at home in the laboratory” (July 1940 report to B.A.E.F.). His experiments and results progressed at an extraordinary pace, and in a few months, a huge quantity of data was gathered on calcium and strontium metabolism.
It was presented in late October of 1940 at the “Conference of Applied
Nuclear Physics” conducted at M.I.T. in Cambridge, Mass. The reason for
the hurry is told hereafter but let us first consider the substance of his
– He described his preliminary experiments with intravenously or orally administered radiocalcium (Ca-45) lactate in mice, resulting a major activity recovered in bones and a negligible one in soft tissue. Similar results were obtained with radiostrontium (Sr-89;
– strontium is in the same chemical group as calcium). The highest uptake was observed in trabecular bone.
– Both Ca-45 and Sr-89 were produced in the Berkeley 60 inch cyclotron by bombardment of calcium and strontium with 16 million volts deuterons (cyclotrons had been conceived by E. Lawrence, who was rewarded in 1939 with a Nobel Prize in Physics for this invention.) The low yield and softness of beta rays of Ca-45 led to prefer Sr-89 (with its high yield and suitable beta radiation energy) in many experiments.
– P-32 (radiophosphorus) also was tested, but its uptake in bones was less specific than for calcium and strontium.
– Excretion of calcium and strontium was studied and was found to occur both in urine and feces, generally more in feces.
– Uptake in the bones was compared after administration of chloride,
lactate or gluconate of strontium, and was found to be independent of the anion.
– Calcium and strontium metabolism was also studied in mice during pregnancy and lactation period leading to the conclusion that these radioisotopes previously fixed in mother’s bone migrate to the foetus during the last days of pregnancy, and to the milk during the
first days of the lactation period. Experiments were also conducted, in collaboration, on two lactating cows showing that about 10 % of intravenously injected Sr89 lactate was recovered in the milk.
– Because of the innocuousness of small doses of radiostrontium, its specific fixation on the bones, its of production, its convenient half life of (55 days) and beta ray energy, the suggestion was made to use various human pathologies, and the first clinical experiments, begun in collaboration with John H. Lawrence, M.D., (the younger brother of Ernest), were announced.
Last but not least, a large amount of a secondary product was found in the preparation of radiostrontium: a long life (100 days) isotope of yttrium, Y-86, whose penetrating gamma radiation was found to be useful in metallic radiography.
Seven papers on these subjects were published, principally in 1941,
But all of my father’s discoveries had already been made public at this
1940 conference. The only exception being the display of autoradiographs
Sr-89 and P-32 uptake in different tissues of mice and rabbits, which
appeared in a 1941 publication. A non-essential paper presented another by-product in the preparation of radiostrontium: radioactive rubidium which could be used as a tracer for potassium in biological research by reason of its chemical similarity to that element.
Thanks to the pharmacologist, C. D. Leake, an eighth paper (the most complete and important one) was published posthumously, in 1942. This paper expands the the previous ones and describes the first clinical trials, and the first gratifying result. This last paper also contains an important detail justifying the the therapeutic use of Sr-89 to irradiate tumors: the highest uptake
in the regions where an osteoblastic process exists, as in the roots of the ncisor teeth (in mice and rabbits), and in healing fractured bones (of rats.)
In this paper, many autoradiographs are presented, including one of an amputated human leg with
an osteogenic sarcoma. This amputated leg produced in a publication by John Lawrence and other members of the Radiation Laboratory who continued Pecher’s work after his death (Treadwell
et al. 1942). The publications are listed and commented on in the “Annexe I. Les Publications.”
WHY such a hurry? The Second World War had started in Europe and,
on May 10th, 1940, Belgium was invaded and occupied by the German
army. At that particular moment, my father had just begun his new work
in an altogether new scientific environment. Assuming to have to stop his
research at any moment now, he devoted all his energy to advance it as
far as possible. In his July 1940 report to B.A.E.F.: “My wife has helped me
continuously, so we have been able to work much faster.” When my father
had arrived in the laboratory, Dr. John Lawrence had invited him to look
around to choose the problem he would like to investigate and he had started on two ways:
cancer treatment with the aid of neutron rays, and
tracer research with radioactive calcium. “When Belgium was invaded,
with the expectation of being called back very soon, I discontinued my work
on neutron therapy and concentrated completely on my tracer research
with radio-calcium, as much more information could be obtained in this
field within the short period that I expect to remain here.” As a result, In
his January 1941 report to B.A.E.F. (his one year fellowship had been
renewed) he could state: “. . . All that can be said is that this material [radioactive
strontium] makes possible something that had never been possible
before: the irradiation of the whole skeleton, with almost no irradiation of the bone marrow and other soft tissues”, and he then went on to describe the first medical trials. (Paul’s note: first human trials. Consenting human trials.)
At the end of April 1941, my father was ordered to join the Belgian
Armed Forces training camp at Joliette, near Montreal. Five months
after the surrender of Belgium, a Belgian government was established in
London and decided to restore a “free” Belgian army in England. All draft-age
Belgian men living in the whole American continent were directed to
assemble prior to be sent to England. So, during one month, May of 1941,
my father found himself performing routine medical work at a military
During the very same month, however, Ernest Lawrence took prompt
action to notify key people in the American, Canadian and British
research communities that Charles Pecher was critically important to
ongoing defense research and that he (Pecher) must be prevented from
being sent abroad as a regular soldier. In a letter to my father, Lawrence
wrote: “. . . it would be in the best interests of the allied armed forces for you
to remain.” This is the beginning of a deeply conflicted and acutely stressful
period for my father. It is related at length in the “Quatrieme partie”,
and it ends with his death.
With the passing of a few months, and in addition to his work on
cancer, my father had made two inventions which were of immediate
interest to the growing war effort. The first one resulted from the incidental
discovery of yttrium-86, with its hard and monochromatlc gamma
radiation, which was produced with a good yield by the bombardment of
strontium. He demonstrated that this radioisotope was Ideally adapted to
industrial radiographs of relatively thick metal objects. It was therefore,
an advantageous and synthetic substitute for radium in metallic radiography.
Application to patent this invention was filed in May 1941 (by E. Lawrence, as my father
was retained in Joliette) but already at that time, the Maritime Commission had required the priority of its use.
The second invention was a method to transmit secret messages based on the technique
of autoradiography. Application for a patent was filed in June1941, but the American authorities imposed complete secrecy on it. My father had given free use of this invention
to the American Intelligence Service and the western allies (at this moment, America had not yet officially entered the war but was, nonetheless, in active collaboration with the Canadian and British military planners). The story about the recent and unexpected re-discovery of these patent applications is told at the beginning of the “Cinquieme partie”.
The precise reasons are not are not known why Ernest Lawrence felt compelled to keep Pecher assigned to military and scientific work in the U.S.A. or Canada, or even in England.
His two inventions of obvious interest to national defence were probably not the only reason.
In letters Lawrence sent my mother (dated May 27 and June 2, 1941), statements such as “…good scientific men are at the moment so badly needed.”, and “..the general question is conserving scientific talents for war purposes.” Leads me to suspect that Lawrence recognized qualitities in my father which should not be lost for the war effort: intelligence, inventivity, polyvalency, efficiency, added to completely reliable political opinions, and a kind and open nature. One should not forget that Lawrence and few research colleagues were already, at that time, secrectly engaged in the earliest stages of building an atomic bomb (atomic fission had been achieved and identified as such by physicists in Germany at the
beginning of 1939, and it had become clear that a new form of energy was now available,
either for peaceful ends, or… to make a terrible weapon. American authorities had been warned of it, and were persuaded that Germany would try to produce such a bomb).
Thus, since the end of 1939 the Lawrence group, as fifteen other research groups, had been required to try to develop a method to produce fissionable material, uranium 235, in large amounts. These efforts were still far from success in early 1941. I do not think my
father himself was involved in that project, but, because of this circumstance,
a new reason to keep him out of active combat was recently put
forward: his expert knowledge on Sr-89 metabolism and medical use. At
first view, this may seem strange and irrelevant, but I shall revisit this
After spending the entire month of May 1941 in Joliette, my father was
given one week’s leave in New York. It was a hectic and dreadful week, full
of meetings, contacts and letter writing, my father (assisted by my mother)
struggling to decide what was his duty: continue his scientific work as
required by Lawrence, or obey the Belgian military authorities, The most
renowned person who counseled him to stay was Herbert Hoover, the
immediate past President of the U.S.A.
But, the American authorities had a way to force him to stay in the
U.S.A.! After Belgium surrendered there was no more Belgian army, and
my father believed that only the U.S.A. would be able to save his mother
country (he was very patriotic). So he had enlisted in the U.S. army. When,
at the end of April 1941, he was ordered to report to the training camp In
Canada, relieved and eager to finally be called to his duty, he evidently
‘ did not take into further account his enlistment into the US. Army. At
the end of his week in New York, the reality of his situation all of a suddden shot up: a telegram from his local (California) draft board expressly
prohibiting him from leaving the country. He did not go back to Joliette.
and was, accordingly, declared a deserter by the Belgian army. He had two
military authorities, compelling him to opposing duties!
Until that moment, my father had been a happy young man. He had
a cheerful childhood in spite of the early loss of his beloved father,
enjoyed travel, writing, skiing, mountain climbing, camping. He had an easy
contact with others and had several close friends. He had an even and pleasant
temper. But this was too much. Stress and uncertainty began to weigh heavily upon him. His health and mental stability were affected.
Many requests were addressed to the Belgian government, in London, in the hope
of obtaining approval for him to remain in America for national defence research. All were rejected. At last, in July 1941, he decided to the Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, confident that
this was his duty, even if the choice had not been an easy one. Meanwhile
a new directive arrived from the American military authorities: that the
decision as what was his duty was not his competence, but was to be discussed
between them and the Belgian authorities. This news, however,
brought him no comfort: he was still a deserter as far as Belgium was
concerned and this was utterly unbearable. Several sources attest to his
nervousness and seclusion.
After a few weeks in California, he realized that members of the
Belgian community living in New York (among them, a senior professor
of the University of Brussels) did not understand his situation (i.e. the
constraints imposed by American authorities and his contribution to the
war effort – details of which could not, of course, be divulged), and viewed
his behavior as cowardice! This prompted him to change his mind: he had
his position regularized with his local draft board (I do not know how
he did it) and left for Canada. En route, he stopped in New York (August
21), where he met the General Consul of Belgium who tried to assuage
his fears. But he arrived at the training camp in a very agitated state, his
face and wrists full of scratches. His comrades and even the commanding
officer tried to calm and reassure him but he persisted in accusing
himself of being a deserter and a criminal. He felt certain his case was
considered very serious by the highest authorities and he experienced an
overwhelming sense of personal guilt.
On ‘Thursday August 28, after lunch with a Belgian representative
and a common friend, who tried to cheer him up, he seemed appeased.
Friday morning he was reported missing (he was last seen in the camp
the evening before). An active search was immediately commenced but
remained unsuccessful until the morning of Sunday, the 31st of August,
when his body was found by fishermen. He was lying on the shore of the
river Assomption, near Joliette, at a place where the banks are steep and
dangerous for walkers. The official report states the death was accidental.
My father had a funeral with full military honors and was buried in
the cemetery of Joliette. After some time, my mother was informed by
a soldier who had been present at the autopsy that the death was due to
suicide.. . and that is the story as it remained for posterity. For my part
the question remains open: a mortal fall in the dark, or a suicide? In
any case, my father died from total desperation. The “moral disturbance”
reported by my mother induced an anxiety which worsened into a fatal and pathological agitation.