Dr. William B. Coley

World Cancer Day is observed on the 4th of February 2021. Let us read about the man who was well ahead of his times when it came to treatment options for cancer and paved the way for Immunotherapy. 

Dr William B Coley was a renowned bone surgeon at New York’s Memorial Hospital. He had an illustrious career at the hospital as a surgeon, but fate had other plans for him. After failing to save a patient from cancer, he dedicated himself to finding a solution. This led him to attempt an unconventional form of treatment- Immunotherapy.

Timeline: 12 January 1862 to 16 April 1936

Place of study: Yale University and Harvard Medical School

Famous For:
  • Dr William B Coley is famously known as the Father of Immunotherapy.
  • He rattled the cages of traditional treatment for cancer by introducing bacterial toxins to fight tumors.
  • According to his theory, one’s own immune system can be triggered to attack and subsequently shrink a tumor.
  • He developed a treatment using bacterial toxins, which would later be called “Coley’s toxins”.
  • He injected over 1,000 patients with these Coley toxins and garnered a lot of attention. 
  • These became commercially available in 1899 and went on to be used for about 30 years.
  • Despite their effectiveness, Coley’s treatment method was eventually displaced by radiation therapy.
  • Dr James Ewing, Dr Coley’s supervisor and a famous cancer pathologist, found the method to be dangerous, time-consuming, and expensive. Hence his inclination towards radiation therapy prevailed as the choice of treatment for cancer. 
  • However, William Coley’s son and successor at the hospital went on to support the use of Coley’s toxins as adjunctive therapy for surgery.  
Grants and Recognition:
  • Dr Coley was the Director of the Bone Tumor Service at the Memorial Hospital
  • He received financial support from the Rockefeller family 
  • In 1902, he received a huge grant from the Huntington Family 
Fun fact:

His daughter, Dr. Helen Coley Nauts, founded the Cancer Research Institute which is dedicated to research on Cancer Immunology. Looks like this passion ran in the genes!


1. American Association for Cancer Research. William B Coley. [Online]. Available from: https://www.aacr.org/governance/william-b-coley/ [Accessed 2 February 2021].
2. Cancer Research Institute. Immunotherapy Fact of the Day #2. [Online]. Available from: https://www.cancerresearch.org/join-the-cause/cancer-immunotherapy-month/30-facts/02  [Accessed 2 February 2021].