Stress and Welfare State Science: Postwar Medical Research Policy and the Pathologization of Old Age

Sunday, January 4, 2015: 11:30 AM
Conference Room C (Sheraton New York)
Vanessa Burrows, City University of New York, Graduate Center
Inspired by the great success of federally-funded medical research programs in the Second World War, the United States government developed a postwar national research policy that invested unprecedented sums in the medical sciences.  The postwar period saw a marked rise in chronic diseases as bacteriological public health interventions contributed to a drastic increase in life expectancy by mid-century.  The aging population presented new medical challenges in understanding how multicausal diseases develop, why they affect certain individuals and not others, and what preventive or therapeutic strategies were most effective in combating these mounting public health threats.  Creating several subdivisions of the National Institutes of Health specializing in cancer, heart disease and rheumatic conditions, the U.S. government proclaimed research on these chronic and degenerative diseases to be a national priority. 

This paper will explore how with the support of several large NIH grants, Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye developed a new diagnosis uniquely suited to the changing postwar patient demographics and medical marketplace.  Selye discovered that chronic exposure to adverse stimuli—including toxins, anxiety, inactivity, and fatty and salty diets—could cause wear and tear that contributed to the development of chronic diseases, as well as premature aging.  Biological “Stress,” Selye claimed, was the primary risk factor for the range of diseases threatening Americans, and was unnecessarily limiting their life-spans.  He recommended a combination of behavioral modifications and pharmaceutical drugs to minimize the damage caused by stress, and empower American patients to escape disease and live to age one hundred!  As a result, national research policy that aimed to improve the health of an aging population by eradicating chronic disease, ended up producing an entirely new disease model that ironically medicalized an even larger portion of the population as victims of “stress.”

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