The Royal Marsden Diagnosis and treatment

Sarcoma Unit confirms 18th-century diagnosis

The Sarcoma Unit at The Royal Marsden confirmed a cancer diagnosis made more than 200 years ago by one of medicine's most influential surgeons, Mr John Hunter

Specimen scan: The team used modern scanning techniques to confirm John Hunter’s diagnosis


Patient first diagnosed with cancer

Doctors at The Royal Marsden analysed case notes and specimens from the 18th century, which were preserved at The Hunterian Museum in London.

They confirmed the man who presented himself at St George’s Hospital in November 1786 had osteosarcoma. Mr Hunter wasn’t able to give a firm diagnosis of the tumour, only describing it as a "tumour as hard as bone".

The team are comparing further historical samples from different tumour types with contemporary tumours to investigate how the disease has evolved over the centuries.

It’s very early days, but we’re looking forward to seeing what we find over the next few months

Dr Christina Messiou

Dr Christina Messiou, Consultant Radiologist at The Royal Marsden, said: “We believe that this is the first preserved and documented clinical case of metastatic osteosarcoma.

"It’s thanks to these carefully preserved samples that we may be able to study cancer evolution over 200 years. What we hope to see is whether there’s a connection between lifestyle risk factors and any differences between historical and current cancers."

Writing in the British Medical Journal, the Sarcoma team apologised for the delay in analysing the samples – the patient’s presentation in 1786 predated The Royal Marsden’s founding in 1851.