Thesis ID: CBB001567552

Cancer Viruses and the Construction of Biomedicine in the United States from 1900 to 1980 (2014)


Scheffler, Robin Wolfe (Author)

Yale University
Kevles, Daniel J.

Publication Date: 2014
Edition Details: Advisor: Kevles, Daniel J.
Physical Details: 452 pp.
Language: English

This dissertation provides the first history of viral carcinogenesis that integrates its scientific, institutional, political, and social aspects. Unlike other theories of carcinogenesis, inquiry into the viral causes of cancer, by virtue of its association with the public health accomplishments of microbiology, promised widespread cancer prevention, if not elimination, through vaccination. Later in the twentieth century, the simplicity of cancer viruses offered appealing targets for molecular biologists seeking a means of transferring their practices from prokaryotic bacteria to eukaryotic animal cells. Cancer viruses therefore provide a productive site to consider the relationships between the laboratory, the clinic, and public health defined by the development of biomedicine at the intersection of biology and medicine as separate fields. Over the course of the twentieth century, biomedicine has emerged as an important site for understanding health and illness, defining individual identity, and seeking economic gains. In following cancer viruses this dissertation advances two principal arguments about the broader history of biomedicine. First, the rise of the laboratory in biomedical research was a social as well as a scientific process. Cancer viruses allow us to trace the movement of disease research from clinical observations of human patients to laboratory studies of animals to the manipulation of experimental systems to in vitro experimentation. The use and legitimacy of different model systems or instruments for the study of human disease were closely tied to the interests and agendas of the governmental, philanthropic, and commercial patrons of biomedical research. Cancer viruses, in particular, were a point of contact between these different patronage regimes. This history suggests that the development of laboratory-based biological sciences, such as molecular biology, was much more closely tied to medical concerns and popular enthusiasm than prior accounts allow. However, these patrons did not exert absolute control over these movements. Research into cancer viruses as external agents of cancer resulted in the discovery of internal genetic agents of cancer, oncogenes, in the late 1970s--hardly its intended result. Second, this dissertation claims that biomedicine should be understood as an important area of state formation in the United States after the Second World War. Until the mid-twentieth century, the federal government was a marginal sponsor of biomedical research. However, at the end of the century the vast majority of such research, not only in biomedicine but also in the biological sciences, was underwritten by the National Institutes of Health. As the state increased its support for research, it also sought to direct and hasten is therapeutic benefits. Here, the idea of vaccination against cancer provided an appealing target for intervention. Cancer virus research was a critical part of the so-called War on Cancer in the 1970s, whose ambitions, technocratic ethos, and frustration matched other ambitious acts of state-building during the 1960s and 1970s, including the War on Poverty and the Vietnam War. One theme that runs through this dissertation is institutional, particularly the set of initiatives undertaken by the United States National Cancer Institute to foster and manage cancer virus research through the controversial Virus Cancer Program. Cancer viruses existed, not only as scientific objects in the laboratory, but also as "administrative objects" for state management. While the ambitions of the Program were frustrated, the infrastructure it created offers a case study of large-scale, organized biomedical research before the start of the Human Genome Project, which is usually taken as the beginning of "big biomedicine." Principally, this dissertation follows cancer viruses in the most literal sense--tracing their points of emergence and their trajectories through public health and laboratory research. Rous Sarcoma Virus, the first cancer virus to be observed in 1911, ties together the early challenges of fitting cancer viruses within the causal schema of infectious disease, but also the emergence of a molecular genetic schema for cancer causation--oncogenes--in the 1970s. Simian Virus 40 links vaccination campaigns for polio with the rise of molecular techniques in cancer research. Following the Epstein-Barr Virus provides an opportunity to explore relationships between the laboratory and the field in biomedical research as they related to the politics of global health and decolonization. One virus is absent from this dissertation: a virus responsible for a significant portion of human cancers. While such viruses were eventually found, the fact that cancer virus research in this era failed to develop a vaccine while also hosting spectacular advances in molecular biology highlights the fraught political and practical relationship between laboratory research and advancing human health.


Description Cited in Dissertation Abstracts International-A 75/09(E), Mar 2015. Proquest Document ID: 1542256936.

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Authors & Contributors
Scheffler, Robin Wolfe
Hsiao-Ling Chen
Aviles, Natalie B.
Ann Hui Ching
Beza Merid
Sun, Shirley Hsiao-Li
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Social Studies of Science
Osiris: A Research Journal Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
Journal of the History of Biology
International Studies in the Philosophy of Science
Yale University Press
The Experiment, LLC
Rowman & Littlefield
Greenwood Publishing Group
Crown Publishers
Cancer; tumors
Disease and diseases
Discovery in medicine
Discipline formation
Hayflick, Leonard
Ceppellini, Ruggero
Stern, Domenico Rigoni
Rous, Fancis Peyton
Old, Lloyd J.
Henderson, Lawrence Joseph
Time Periods
20th century
21st century
20th century, late
20th century, early
United States
National Cancer Institute (U.S.)
Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research
Harvard University

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