Campus & Community

The Big Picture

3 min read

Elliot Hammerman: Machinist


Ask Elliot Hammerman about his work, and he’ll show you pictures. Pictures of smiling adults, pictures of himself and his colleagues dressed up in costume, pictures of kids – lots and lots of kids – in hospital johnnies or baseball uniforms or their Sunday best.

Hammerman is a machinist, not a photographer. For 14 years, he has worked at the Harvard Cyclotron Laboratory creating precision apertures through which the cyclotron fires protons to treat inoperable tumors.

Built in 1949, Harvard’s cyclotron spent its first 15 years in scientific service, helping physicists better understand the nature of atoms. Since the 1960s, the behemoth machine, which produces beams of atomic particles energetic enough to break open an atom, has been used in partnership with Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) to treat tumors, particularly of the brain and eye. Working in concert with surgeons and physicists at MGH, Hammerman drills custom apertures from brass and Lucite. He fashions the apertures so they focus the beam of protons to exactly the shape of the tumor.

As indicated by the photographs that line the walls of his machine shop, Hammerman is no mere drill jockey. Patients benefit not only from his precise handiwork but also from his friendly manner and easy generosity. “You get to know them after a while,” he says. Each year about 400 people, many of them children, travel from around the world for treatment at the cyclotron; they’re treated four days a week for two months.

Hammerman, who had no medical training prior to this job, does his part to make their visits a little easier. “Some of the kids are so scared,” he says. “I try to bring the patients out here and show them how we make stuff for their health.” He sometimes writes messages – “Hi Sally” or “Go Yankees” – on the Lucite range compensator that he customizes to the exact three-dimensional shape of each tumor. Cake and ice cream, silly costumes, and visits to the 44-foot trawler in the East Boston harbor that Hammerman calls home are all part of the “treatment.”

Hammerman has helped treat some well-known patients, including former Indianapolis Colts running back Craig “Ironhead” Heyward and Congressman Joe Moakley. It’s obvious, however, that he’s most starstruck by the children who come to the cyclotron, many of whom he stays in touch with for years after their initial treatment. “They don’t come back looking for their doctor who took care of them, they come back looking for me,” he says. “It’s weird. Not that I’m trying to make any big how-do-you-do about it, but it’s true.”

After half a century of service, the cyclotron is being retired this year. A new facility at MGH will begin treating patients in early November, and Hammerman will move to a shop there in January. Sad to leave the Cambridge facility and slightly apprehensive about the change in management, Hammerman remains upbeat. “It’s a very gratifying job,” he says, sifting through photographs of some of his favorite patients. “The work you do, you can see the results of it.”