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A Contagious Cause

The American Hunt for Cancer Viruses and the Rise of Molecular Medicine

Robin Wolfe Scheffler

A Contagious Cause

Robin Wolfe Scheffler

368 pages | 30 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2019
Paper $40.00 ISBN: 9780226628370 Published June 2019
Cloth $120.00 ISBN: 9780226458892 Published June 2019
E-book $10.00 to $40.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226628400 Published June 2019

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.

List of Acronyms
Introduction: “An Infectious Disease—A Virus”
1. Cancer and Contagion
2. Cancer as a Viral Disease
3. Policymakers and Philanthropists Define the Cancer Problem
4. The Biomedical Settlement and the Federalization of the Cancer Problem
5. Managing the Future at the Special Virus Leukemia Program
6. Administrative Objects and the Infrastructure of Cancer Virus Research
7. Viruses as a Central Front in the War on Cancer
8. Molecular Biology’s Resistance to the War on Cancer
9. The West Coast Retrovirus Rush and the Discovery of Oncogenes
10. Momentum for Molecular Medicine
Conclusion: Afterlife, Memory, and Failure in Biomedical Research
Time Line
Review Quotes
Carsten Timmerman, University of Manchester
"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."
Angela N. H. Creager, Princeton University
"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."
Ilana Löwy, Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale, author of Tangled Diagnoses: Prenatal Testing, Women, and Risk
"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."
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