The Dread Disease

The Dread Disease : Cancer and Modern American Culture

By (author) James T. Patterson

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Cancer is that "loathsome beast, which seized upon the breast, drove its long claws into the surrounding tissues, derived its sustenance by sucking out the juices of its victims, and never even relaxed its hold in death," a turn-of-the-century physician recorded. Even today cancer affects the popular imagination with dread. In a subtle and penetrating cultural history, James Patterson examines reactions to the disease through a century of American life. The modern American preoccupation with cancer was apparent during the widely publicized illness and death from that ailment of Ulysses S. Grant in 1885. Awareness of the disease soon figured heavily in the public consciousness, and individual reactions to it continue to reveal broader tensions within American society. Patterson examines responses to cancer by researchers and physicians, quacks and faith healers, by the multitude who have heard sensational media reports of "cures," as well as by many who have had firsthand experiences with the disease. Optimistic attitudes of many experts contrast sharply with the skepticism of large segments of the population--often the less wealthy and the less educated--that reject the claims of medical science and resist the advice or, some argue, the paternalistic dictates of the government-supported cancer research establishment. Expanding expectations of a cure from a confident medical profession; the rise of a government-supported Cancer Establishment managing a large research empire; the emergence of a "cancer counterculture"; a new emphasis on prevention through control of the environment and the self; and the private fears and pessimism of millions of Americans form a telling history of American social patterns. Whether the issue is smoking, pollution, or regular checkups, attitudes toward cancer reflect more general views on medicine, public policy, and illness, as well as on death and dying. This century has witnessed both a biomedical revolution and a vastly increased role of the state in the private lives of citizens; but not everyone has bought the medical package, and many have little faith in government intervention. Readers interested in the cultural dimensions of science and medicine as well as historians, sociologists, and political scientists will be enlightened and challenged by "The Dread Disease."

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  • Paperback | 400 pages
  • 154.94 x 228.6 x 25.4mm | 544.31g
  • 01 Oct 1989
  • HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS
  • Cambridge, Mass
  • English
  • Revised ed.
  • 27ill.
  • 0674216261
  • 9780674216266
  • 1,700,286

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Author Information

James T. Patterson is Professor of History at Brown University.

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Review text

A cultural history of cancer in the US, from the late 1800's to the present, that nicely illustrates our evolving attitudes toward illness, medicine, and public health policy. Patterson begins with Ulysses S. Grant's death from cancer in 1885 - at a time when the disease was invariably fatal and thus feared - but not hysterically. By 1915, many of the deadly infectious diseases such as tuberculosis were coming under control, and Patterson goes on to note that as life expectancy increased, chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer became more feared. He describes the origins of the first "alliance against cancer": physicians, researchers, epidemiologists and journalists who, though unable to provide solid help, offered what he calls "the power of positive thinking": pushing - as they continue to do today - early detection, surgery, and scientific research. Running counterpoint to this optimistic view has historically been the group that Patterson identifies as "skeptical about orthodox medical notions of disease and about the claims to expert knowledge by what they came to call the Cancer Establishment." Patterson is right: the story of how these two groups have interacted ever since illustrates durable social and cultural divisions in modern America, Other highlights as he tells the story: changes in attitudes towards smoking; the role of religion; and how AIDS may change the way we view cancer. Patterson tackled a huge subject, and has worked his materials into a riveting account. A most worthwhile read. (Kirkus Reviews)

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