The Dread Disease: Cancer and Modern American Culture (Paperback)
  • The Dread Disease: Cancer and Modern American Culture (Paperback)

The Dread Disease: Cancer and Modern American Culture (Paperback)

Paperback 374 Pages
Published: 01/01/1989
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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.

Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 9780674216266
Number of pages: 374
Weight: 590 g


[Cancer] has a special place in our medical history and social imagination. Patterson’s impressive achievement is to unearth that history, to bring out its cultural roots and manifestations, and to show why cancer was, and still remains, ‘the dread disease.’ It is a story worth knowing…and one well and richly told here. - Daniel Callahan, Philadelphia Inquirer

This is an illuminating study of medical politics and ideology, promises and fears, developing some of the speculations of Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, and highly suggestive for the AIDS generation… [Patterson] puts his finger upon one key feature of cancerphobia…the American urge to play out even the most secret of fears under the full glare of publicity. - Roy Porter, Times Literary Supplement

Masterful, comprehensive, highly readable… The Dread Disease is all in one a historical, sociological, psychological and political analysis… An in-depth, fascinating account of a full spectrum of views on cancer reflected not only in the scientific literature, but also in novels, newspapers, films and the experiences of cancer victims… Fascinating reading. - Elizabeth Whelan, Washington Times

Some of the most perceptive writing yet produced on America’s response to cancer… [A] fine, important book. - Daniel S. Greenberg, Nature

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