The history of mammograms in the U.S.: We’ve come a long way baby.

by 26Health Staff

“Breast” is a term used to refer to the upper ventral region of a mammal’s torso. While breasts surely vary in size and shape, everyone has them. Biologically speaking, breasts are a neutral part of the body with the ability to lactate given the right circumstances. But a curious result of human evolution and civilization is how breasts tend to cause more of a fuss than other parts of our shared anatomy. Their categorization as a secondary sexual characteristic leaves them in a gray space, and the consequential handling of the topic varies from culture to culture. Some societies invented bras to cover them up, others opted to just let them ride free.

Either way, breasts have clearly carried significance across countless cultures and centuries. But at the end of the day, breasts are still a biological attribute, and as such, are vulnerable to injury, disease, and cancer. This is what brings us to our topic of mammograms and how they came to be. Let’s start from the beginning: 

Who Invented Bras Anyway?

When we talk about breasts today, it’s hard not to also think about bras. Despite the efforts of the Free the Nipple movement, the two tend to go together in many developed countries. But that wasn’t always the case. 

It’s true that cave drawings depict people wearing bandeau-like bra styles way back to the 14th century–and supportive garments like corsets were widely worn throughout the rise of Western civilization. However, the actual bra as we now know it was not invented until 1914 by Mary Phelps Jacob. 

Jacob, who later changed her name to Caresse Crosby, was given the first U.S. patent for a Backless Brassiere in November of 1914. Jacob crafted the first modern bra with a pair of silk handkerchiefs and ribbons. Later, she sold her patent to Warner Brothers Corset Co. Warner’s is still a leading producer of bras today. 

The Rising Need for Breast Cancer Screenings

Around that same time as the creation of the bra, scientists were investigating the need to screen for breast cancer and monitor overall breast wellness. According to the NIH, in 1913, Albert Salomon– a German surgeon–shared his findings from radiological studies of 3000 mastectomy patients. Salomon found that he was able to identify the difference between cancerous and non-cancerous tumors in the breast with an X-ray image.

Major studies followed and, decades later In 1949, Uruguayan radiologist Raul Leborgne revitalized the interest in mammography as a procedure by introducing the breast compression technique as a way to produce better quality X-ray images. Leborgne was also credited with establishing a differential diagnosis between benign and malignant calcifications.

The Invention of the Mammogram Machine

Not too long after, the world’s first mammography machine was developed by Jean Bens and Emile Gabbay in the 1960s. Their machine was designed with a special X-ray tube that emitted low-energy radiation but still allowed doctors to examine breast tissue effectively. Initially named the Senographe, the machine was brought to market in 1966. GE Healthcare acquired Bens and Gabbay’s company in 1987, and they have been making mammography systems ever since.

While modern mammography methods were developed late in the 1960s they were not officially recommended by the American Cancer Society until 1976. Today, the mammogram machine continues to be the most reliable way to screen for breast cancer.

The Expansive Approach to Breast Cancer Screenings 

The risk of breast cancer isn’t exclusive to cis women. We strongly advise that trans and nonbinary folx also get regular screenings–if you’re unsure about whether that applies to your unique situation, schedule an appointment with us, and we’ll help you explore how to best take care of your health in a trans-inclusive space that respects your dignity and advocates for your well-being and right to thrive.