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A Contagious Cause: The American Hunt for Cancer Viruses and the Rise of Molecular Medicine

A Contagious Cause: The American Hunt for Cancer Viruses and the Rise of Molecular Medicine

Current price: $43.00
Publication Date: June 15th, 2019
University of Chicago Press
The MIT Press Bookstore
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Is cancer a contagious disease? In the late nineteenth century this idea, and attending efforts to identify a cancer “germ,” inspired fear and ignited controversy. Yet speculation that cancer might be contagious also contained a kernel of hope that the strategies used against infectious diseases, especially vaccination, might be able to subdue this dread disease. Today, nearly one in six cancers are thought to have an infectious cause, but the path to that understanding was twisting and turbulent.

A Contagious Cause is the first book to trace the century-long hunt for a human cancer virus in America, an effort whose scale exceeded that of the Human Genome Project. The government’s campaign merged the worlds of molecular biology, public health, and military planning in the name of translating laboratory discoveries into useful medical therapies. However, its expansion into biomedical research sparked fierce conflict. Many biologists dismissed the suggestion that research should be planned and the idea of curing cancer by a vaccine or any other means as unrealistic, if not dangerous. Although the American hunt was ultimately fruitless, this effort nonetheless profoundly shaped our understanding of life at its most fundamental levels. A Contagious Cause links laboratory and legislature as has rarely been done before, creating a new chapter in the histories of science and American politics.

About the Author

Robin Wolfe Scheffler is the Leo Marx Career Development Chair in the History and Culture of Science and Technology at the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Praise for A Contagious Cause: The American Hunt for Cancer Viruses and the Rise of Molecular Medicine

"An engaging book on the development of biomedical science as looked at through the lens of a historian. . . . Recommended."

"In a scholarly and well-documented history, [Scheffler] recounts how the fear that human cancer might be contagious and the response by public advocates, scientists, and the medical profession led to the creation of an extraordinary mechanism of taxpayer support for cancer research that persists to this day. Covering nearly a century of biomedical history, the author includes absorbing accounts of important milestones in cancer, virology, and biomedical research along with engaging profiles of the major actors. The 379-page book is rich in detail as it weaves together events and changes in politics, medicine, and biology that are usually considered in isolation. . . . [A] captivating story."
— The FASEB Journal

"An excellent overview of the history and politics of post-war biomedical research in the United States. . . . A Contagious Cause is an indispensable reading for all those interested in the social and political processes underpinning the recent past of state-sponsored  biological research on cancer in one of the countries that has contributed the most to it."
— Sociology of Health & Illness

"A meticulous and fascinating reconstruction of the viral interpretation of cancer. . . . Useful reading for those interested in the history of cancer, medicine, and biology and presents a reconstruction of complex events that defies the simplistic definitions of scientific success and scientific failure."
— Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society

"A Contagious Cause describes in detail the complex interplay of science, medicine and politics against the changing background of American society. The author skilfully builds his case without getting lost in the minutiae. . . . This substantial work of scholarship cogently demonstrates what the author calls the 'cycles of concern, hope, mobilization, frustration and redefinition' that characterize the modern biomedical endeavour. It is relevant to anyone interested in how scientific research played into healthcare in the 20th century and serves as an antidote to simplistic interpretations of medical advances."
— British Society for the History of Medicine

"[This book], for the first time, digs into the intersection between science, politics, and the social issues that shape the understanding of the word 'cancer' from a contagious to a molecular disease. . . . Vibrant, easy to read, and full of historical details. . . . A must read for those who want a historical immersion into the world of cancer in the United States."
— Anesthesia & Analgesia

"Discusses a remarkable episode in the century-long American effort to find a cure for cancer, the second leading cause of death in the country, by focusing on the governmental initiative in biomedical policy known as the ‘War on Cancer'. . . . A rich bibliography, some of it included in extensive notes, testifies to the wide horizons of this book."
— Medical History

"Scheffler shows how the success of cancer virus research necessitated mobilizing public sentiments of hope and fear, securing public interest through grandiose, often nearly theatrical engagement, and drawing upon visual materials inscribed with rhetorical arguments which suggested the 'progress' of research. . . . By understanding the ability of the public’s consciousness to take political forms which affected research funding, Scheffler goes beyond pitting these paradoxes of temporality against each other and shows how they mutually constructed the development of cancer virus research. This framing of scientific progress which goes beyond the purely political, economic, and scientific—aiming to incorporate the consciousness of the social—provides a novel approach in terms of analytic method for the social studies of science and medicine."
— Metascience

"A most welcome and exciting contribution to the growing literature analyzing the political economy of the American biomedical enterprise in the twentieth century. . . . A Contagious Cause shines in its analysis of the scientific, political, and administrative origins of America's midcentury launch of a large-scale cancer virus research program and the impact it had on the rise of technology-driven molecular medicine. . . .  [It's] is a rich and rewarding book, one that would remain for a long time in the bookshelf of many historians interested in the history of biomedical research and the politics of biomedicine in America. Scheffler's deep engagement with American political history and his masterful presentations of the key scientific discoveries, organizational innovations, and political shifts in the history of biomedical research would provide a powerful platform to broaden scholarly conversations on the rise of molecular medicine and its cycle of boom and bust from the 1970s and on."
— Bulletin of the History of Medicine

"A Contagious Cause impresses with a series of thought-provoking arguments. . . . A valuable addition to the historiography on American biomedicine and its policy-making. There are many fascinating digressions that may delight those with interdisciplinary interests."
— Canadian Bulletin of Medical History

"A significant addition to the history of twentieth-century medicine and science in America."
— Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences

"[Scheffler] digs into the intersection between science, politics, and the social issues that shape the understanding of the word 'cancer' from a contagious to a molecular disease. . . . A must read for those who want a historical immersion into the world of cancer in the United States."
— International Anesthesia Research Society

"Scheffler's history of the quest for a cancer virus is a book that had to be written. This impressively well researched monograph provides much needed context to the memoirs of cancer researchers published over the past few years. Equally convincing on both the technical and the political aspects of the story, A Contagious Cause is essential reading for anyone interested in how we got where we are in modern cancer research."
— Carsten Timmerman, University of Manchester

"A Contagious Cause reconstructs the origins and consequences of a biological 'moonshot' aimed at finding human cancer viruses in the 1960s and 1970s. Although this program did not achieve its stated aim, it consolidated a distinctively American approach to public health while fueling the scientific--and ultimately economic--ascent of molecular biology. Robin Wolfe Scheffler makes a compelling case for the conjoint growth of the US administrative state and biomedical research, a partnership seemingly impervious to failure. Powerfully argued, this book is vital reading for historians of science and political historians alike."
— Angela N. H. Creager, Princeton University

"A Contagious Cause: The American Hunt for Cancer Viruses and the Rise of Molecular Medicine tells the fascinating story of the search for cancer viruses in the US. This story sheds new light on the development of biomedical sciences in the US during a period in which the promise of biomedical breakthroughs was seen as an attractive alternative to a federal intervention in the medical marketplace. Cancer viruses, Scheffler persuasively argues, became objects 'good to think with,' precisely because of their multifaceted and unresolved history. A Contagious Cause displays the entanglement of biomedicine, clinical studies, and military research, reveals the role of sociotechnical imagery in shaping research policies, and provides a unique opportunity to learn how biomedicine works, especially when it faces obstacles and frustration."
— Ilana Löwy, Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale, author of Tangled Diagnoses: Prenatal Testing, Women, and Risk