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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine


CHSTM 027-radium-needles-(2)
X-ray photograph showing radium needles used to treat a patient with a tumour in the tongue, circa 1940s

Cancer, the 'dread disease', has played a crucial role in shaping medicine and medical science in the twentieth century. One in three people are affected by a form of cancer at some stage in their lives. Associated with disfigurement, death and suffering, caused by the disease itself and sometimes by the treatments, cancer is feared more than any other illness. Cancer and cardiovascular disorders have replaced infectious diseases as the dominant causes of death and disability in the developed world (and increasingly also in developing countries); and cancer has replaced tuberculosis as the dominant illness metaphor, the disease that is foremost in people's imagination.

The history of cancer is closely linked to the emergence of institutions that are central to modern biomedicine. Since the early twentieth century cancer is associated with science and progress. Since World War II, the goal of understanding and defeating cancer has motivated much basic cell biology and molecular genetics research. Belief that science will find the cure for cancer seems to be the antidote to the great fears that surround the disease.

Manchester has long been at the forefront of cancer research and therapy. The Christie Cancer Hospital was founded in 1892 as the Cancer Pavilion and Home for Incurables. It joined in 1931 with the Holt Radium Institute (originally based at the Manchester Royal Infirmary) and became world-famous for radiotherapy. Under Ralston Paterson and his wife, Edith, the hospital established its own research programme and became a model cancer research and treatment centre.

The history of the Christie is only one of the interests of a group of researchers at the Centre, originally led by John Pickstone and funded by a Wellcome Trust Programme Grant to study the history of cancer research and cancer services since 1945. Our work is an attempt to make sense of both local stories and international contexts. Emm Barnes (now at Royal Holloway, University of London) has looked at the history of childhood cancers and patients' experiences of treatment, and at the notion of 'cure' (as opposed to remission). Childhood cancers and cancers of blood and lymph have in many ways been a success story of modern biomedicine, and Helen Valier (now at the University of Houston, Texas) has been studying the institutional history of this success, looking at the history of multi-centre clinical trials in the US and in Britain. In contrast with leukaemias and lymphomas, lung cancer is often associated with hopelessness, and Carsten Timmermann has been looking at the history of the stigma that some say is attached to lung cancer due to its links with smoking, and the effects it may have had on therapy and research. Elizabeth Toon examines the history of breast cancer treatment in postwar Britain; her work also considers how health education and patient activism have shaped public understandings about and everyday experiences of the disease.

Our work on cancer has brought us into contact with many doctors, nurses and other staff, and with patient groups and activists. It links us with fellow historians in several countries, including at the National Cancer Institute and the National Library of Medicine, USA, where we jointly sponsored a conference in 2004. Our work on a model disease is proving a model for historical collaboration and involvement. We are keen to link with other researchers who share our interests.


Carsten Timmermann. A History of Lung Cancer: The Recalcitrant Disease (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

Carsten Timmermann. "'Just give me the best quality of life questionnaire': the Karnofsky scale and the history of quality of life measurements in cancer trials". Chronic Illness (2013), advanced access.

Carsten Timmermann and Elizabeth Toon (eds). Cancer Patients, Cancer Pathways: Historical and Sociological Perspectives (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Helen Valier and Carsten Timmermann. "Clinical trials and the reorganization of medical research in post-Second World War Britain". Medical History, 52 (2008), No 4, pp 493-510.

Emm Barnes. "Cancer coverage: the public face of childhood leukaemia in 1960s Britain". Endeavour, 32 (2008), No 1, pp 10-15.

Carsten Timmermann. "As depressing as it was predictable? Lung cancer, clinical trials, and the Medical Research Council in postwar Britain". Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 81 (2007), No 1, pp 312-334.

Elizabeth Toon. "'Cancer as the general population knows it': knowledge, fear, and lay education in 1950s Britain". Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 81 (2007), No 1, pp 116-138.

Elizabeth Toon. "Does bigger mean better? British perspectives on American cancer treatment and research, 1948". Journal of Clinical Oncology, 25 (2007), No 36, pp 5831-5834.

Emm Barnes. "Between remission and cure: patients, practitioners and the transformation of leukaemia in the late twentieth century". Chronic Illness, 3 (2007), No 4, pp 253-264.

John Pickstone. "Contested cumulations: configurations of cancer treatments through the twentieth century". Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 81 (2007), No 1, pp 164-196.

Emm Barnes. "Captain Chemo and Mr Wiggly: patient information for children with cancer in the late twentieth century". Social History of Medicine, 19 (2006), No 3, pp 501-519.

Emm Barnes. "Caring and curing: paediatric cancer services since 1960". European Journal of Cancer Care, 14 (2005), No 4, pp 373-380.

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