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Quimby, Edith (1891–1982)

American physicist who was responsible for standardizing measures of radiation dosages in cancer treatment. Born Edith Hinkley on July 10, 1891, in Rockford, Illinois; died on October 11, 1982; daughter of Arthur S. Hinkley (an architect and farmer) and Harriet H. Hinkley; Whitman College, Walla Walla, Washington, B.S., 1912; University of California, M.A., 1915; married Shirley L. Quimby (a physicist), in 1915.

Obtained employment at New York City Memorial Hospital for Cancer and Allied Diseases (1919); awarded Janeway Medal of the American Radium Society (1940); awarded honorary degree, Doctor of Science, Whitman College (1940); taught radiology courses at Cornell University Medical College (1941–42); named associate professor of radiology at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons (1943); retired as professor emeritus of radiology (1960).

Edith Quimby, who was one of the 20th century's most prominent researchers in radiation physics, focused primarily on the biological effects of radiation on humans. Many of her projects were devoted to measuring the penetrability of various sources of radiation, and in particular she studied the medical application of X-radiation and radioactive nuclides in the treatment of tumors. During the 1920s and 1930s, Quimby was the only woman in America working in this then little-researched area of physics. During her career, she created standards of radiation measurement, developed safe-handling techniques for radioactive materials, and essentially devised methods of diagnosis and treatment.

Quimby was born in 1891 in Rockford, Illinois, one of three children of parents who were both from families named Hinkley. During her childhood, they moved frequently and lived in several states. She went to Boise High School in Boise, Idaho, where she was encouraged to pursue her interests in natural phenomena. Quimby then received a full scholarship to attend Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, where she majored in mathematics and physics. While studying at Whitman, Quimby was influenced by her physics professor B.H. Brown and her math professor Walter Bratton, both of whom supported her scientific talents and guided her toward a career in scientific research. After receiving her B.S. degree from Whitman in 1912, Quimby taught high-school science in Nyssa, Oregon, for two years. In 1914, she left Oregon to attend the University of California, where she had received a physics fellowship. Shirley L. Quimby, a fellow physics student, became her husband in 1915. She received her M.A. degree in 1916, then returned to teaching science, accepting a position at Antioch High School in Antioch, California.

In 1919, Quimby moved to New York with her husband, who began teaching physics at Columbia University. She found employment as an assistant to Dr. Gioacchino Failla, whose willingness to hire a woman for the position would ultimately help advance the science. For the following 40 years, Quimby and Failla, who was chief physicist at New York City Memorial Hospital for Cancer and Allied Diseases, collaborated on some of the most important medical research of the 20th century. During the 1920s and 1930s, Quimby conducted experiments to establish the various properties of radioactive materials, such as radium, that were used to treat cancer. One of the major problems posed by the use of radioactive substances for therapeutic treatment was the difficulty in determining the proper dose for each patient. Until Quimby's groundbreaking work in establishing standards for radiation dosages in cancer treatment, individual doctors had to determine dosages for individual patients. The information that Quimby's experiments presented enabled physicians to provide a more exact treatment for their patients, while minimizing side effects. After years of study, Quimby was able to determine the number of roentgens per minute emitted by radium in the air, on the surface of the skin, and within the body. Since Quimby's early work, other scientists have expanded upon her theories and have been able to provide a more detailed methodology for the measurement of radiation. As a result, the unit of roentgen per minute is no longer used.

Quimby published over 50 articles in scientific journals and her work became very well known. In 1940, she was the first woman to be awarded the Janeway Medal by the American Radium Society, and in 1941 she became the second woman to receive the Gold Medal from the Radiological Society of North America (the first woman to receive the honor was Marie Curie ).

In 1941 and 1942, Quimby taught radiology at Cornell University Medical College. In 1943, she became associate professor in radiological physics at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons. During her early years at Columbia, she and Failla founded the Radiological Research Laboratory, where their efforts were focused on using radionuclides in diagnosing and treating thyroid diseases, performing circulation studies, and locating tumors in organs of the body. Quimby gave several lectures on her work. She is credited with researching and making known treatment methods which were safe for those handling radioactive materials, as she was well aware of the harmful effects of radiation exposure. Quimby's research and methodology made her a pioneer in the field of nuclear medicine, in which radioactive materials are used for diagnostic imaging and for the therapeutic treatment of various diseases.

During World War II, Quimby worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atom bomb, and after the war she worked with the Atomic Energy Commission. She served as a consultant on radiation therapy for the Veterans Administration and chaired a committee for the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements. She was also an examiner for the American Board of Radiology and belonged to a number of radiological groups and societies. Among these was the American Radium Society, an organization of which she was vice president. She wrote extensively, contributing much literature to her field, and was the coauthor of the noted book Physical Foundations of Radiology.

Quimby and her husband lived in the Greenwich Village section of New York City. An Episcopalian and Democrat who belonged to the League of Women Voters, she enjoyed sports, bridge, theater, and detective novels. Quimby retired in 1960 as a professor emeritus of radiology but remained active in her field, writing, lecturing, and consulting into the next decade. She died on October 11, 1982, at the age of 91. Edith Quimby was remembered both for her outstanding professional achievements as well as her amiable disposition. After her death, Harald Rossi noted in Physics Today that her place in history was secure: "All too often the creative achievements of scientific pioneers are overshadowed by further developments made by others or simply become anonymous components of accepted practice. Fortunately, Quimby's exceptional service to radiological physics was widely recognized."


Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1949.

McMurray, Emily, ed. Notable Twentieth-Century Scientists. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1995.

Weatherford, Doris, ed. American Women's History. NY: Prentice Hall, 1994.

suggested reading:

Quimby, Edith. Physical Foundations of Radiology. Harper, 1970.

——, and Paul N. Goodwin. Safe Handling of Radioactive Isotopes in Medical Practice. Macmillan, 1960.

——, Sergei Feitelberg, and Solomon Silver. Radioactive Isotopes in Clinical Practice. Lea & Febiger, 1958.

——, Sergei Feitelberg, and William Gross. Radioactive Nuclides in Medicine and Biology. Lea & Febiger, 1958.

Christine Miner Miner , freelance writer, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Quimby, Edith (1891–1982)

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