Health: The Prehistory of the War on Cancer

The Story:

Use of the phrase “war on cancer” dates to January 1971, when then President Richard Nixon promised to put the resources of the US federal government behind research and development in this area. And forty-nine years seems like a long time for a war to last. But Alan I. Marcus, in a new book, offers a prehistory of this war.


Marcus, a professor at Mississippi State University the department of history, reminds us that in the late 19th century, Pasteur and Koch had championed the germ theory of disease, with great success, not just as a description of the world but as a research program. For any disease, find the germ that infects the human body, and find a way either to kill that germ without harming the surrounding tissue, or to immunize people so that their bodies can do that work themselves.

As early as the 1870s, optimistic investigators sought to apply this agenda to cancer. They lost this initial “war” on cancer. Forty years after its start, the search for the agent of infection behind cancer had effectively come to an end.

In Pill Form:

That early search, in the period 1875 – 1915, was not entirely a waste of human effort and ingenuity. It did result in the development of a body of institutions such as research laboratories and publications, an infrastructure for research that remains with us today. WHen cancer is beaten, those early pioneers may well deserve their posthumous medals.

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