Brown Bag Lecture: “The Formation of a Scientific Bubble: Cancer Viruses and the Acceleration of Biomedical Research”

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Date: February 25, 2014
Time: 12:00 to 1:00 p.m.

315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Event Type: Open to the Public
Fee: Free
RSVP Online: No Registration Required

A talk by Robin Scheffler

From the late 1950s until the early 1980s few areas of research held more promise and generated more excitement than the search for a human cancer vaccine. Inspired by the success of vaccination against polio, the National Cancer Institute launched an ambitious search for viruses associated with human cancer. At a time when many biologists were dedicated proponents of “small science,” the Cancer Institute sought to apply the methods of Cold War defense management to biomedical research. The result of this initiative, the Virus Cancer Program, aimed to address the “translational” gap between laboratory research and disease therapies. Indeed, the scale and scope of the program exceeded that of the later Human Genome Project. Nonetheless, despite spending over a billion dollars and marshaling the efforts of thousands of researchers, the program was ultimately frustrated in its aim of developing a human cancer vaccine.

The politics of managing scientists were never entirely separable from the study of cancer viruses in the laboratory. Cancer virus research stood at the crossroads of microbiology, molecular biology, cell development, and medicine. Consequently, the infrastructure developed by the program went on to play a formative role in the expansion of molecular biology, the rise of biotechnology, and mobilization against HIV/AIDS. Politically, the memory of this program continues to shape debates over the appropriate level of federal involvement in biomedical research decades after its initial controversy.

Robin Wolfe Scheffler is a doctoral candidate in the Yale University Program for the History of Science and Medicine. His research interests include the history of molecular biology, biotechnology, political economy, environmental health, and the politics of memory. He is currently completing his dissertation entitled “Cancer Viruses and the Construction of Biomedicine in the United States from 1900 to 1980.”

About Brown Bag Lectures

Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of weekly informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of CHF staff and fellows and interested members of the public.

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