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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Dr Elizabeth Toon

BA, MA, PhD

Research Interests

I research and write about a number of aspects of the history of medicine, public health, and health care, and am especially interested in the social and cultural dynamics that inform expert-lay relationships around medical knowledge.

At present, I am finishing a book manuscript which is under contract to Palgrave Macmillan, titled Private Trauma, Public Drama: Breast Cancer Treatment in Twentieth-Century Britain.  This study analyzes why and how British treatment for breast cancer changed from the 1920s to the 1980s, and what those changes meant to and for the women treated for the disease and the health care system that provided their treatment.  Over five chapters, I examine the social, institutional, political, and cultural trends that shaped breast cancer treatment and public debates about it in post-war Britain, examining the role in these debates of new medical research cultures, new health care structures, new ideas about patients’ rights and state obligations, new forms of illness identity, and new expressions of women’s political agency.  At the same time, I assess how changing patterns of treatment and the changing public profile of breast cancer have framed women’s everyday experiences of this disease.  Drawing on individual and institutional archives, published medical and policy discourses, interviews with health care professionals, popular media coverage, fictional depictions, and patient narratives, this will be the first history of breast cancer to focus on Britain, and one of a very few works published so far to consider the history of post-war British women’s health.  Because I emphasize how the reconfiguration of clinical research and medical services reshaped British women’s experience of breast cancer and its treatment, I hope my analysis will speak not only to historians of medicine, but also to social historians and historians of women and gender.

At the same time, I have recently completed research for another project, Making Screening Work: The Smear, The Mammogram and Women’s Health in the UK, 1960-2000, funded by the Wellcome Trust. This study examines how the cervical smear and the mammogram become routine health interventions for UK women.  I am especially interested in how cervical and breast screening has become a female domain within UK medicine and public health, with the day-to-day labour generally performed by women technicians, paraprofessionals, and professionals.  I also consider how women’s cancer screening advocates, policymakers, and organizers drew on previous prevention programmes (such as tuberculosis screening) as both rhetorical analogy and practical model.  Finally, my study scrutinizes how health professionals, social scientists, and women’s organizations convinced (most) UK women that screening was not only worthwhile but necessary, and how both screening programs and screening technologies changed as a result of the participation, response, and demands of those everyday women.  I have given several invited presentations as well as conference papers on this research.

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