The ‘pinkification’ and sexualisation of late-twentieth-century breast cancer awareness campaigns bear testament to the intimate relationship between gender and malignancy. The prominence of breast cancer in contemporary culture and society has made the disease a fertile ground for historians of medicine, both popular and academic. However, as Ornella Moscucci observes, the histories of other ‘sex-specific’ cancers remain understudied (p. 2). This relative absence is particularly stark when one considers the centrality of cervical cancer in the development of British public health policy. Thus, in shifting the focus away from breast cancer and towards uterine, cervical and ovarian diseases, this book rectifies an imbalance in the historiography of twentieth-century medicine. Moreover, her contributions to our understanding of the complex links between cancer and womanhood lie not just in adding to our knowledge of malignancies that peculiarly affect women—and particularly gynaecological cancers—but also in enhancing our understanding of the gendered configurations of medical specialisation and public health campaigning. Moscucci is careful to delineate her study, and positions it as a history of cancer as a ‘female disease’. Thus, anyone seeking an account of masculinity and cancer, or of diseases that peculiarly affect men will have to look elsewhere. The book is made up of six chapters and moves both chronologically and thematically from the middle of the nineteenth century to the Second World War. It provides a crucial contribution to the history of cancer, in that it looks before the post-war era that predominates in scholarly and common sense imaginings of the disease. She explores too, the period before the advent of chemotherapies that shifted the therapeutic landscape in the second half of the twentieth century. However, the rationale of beginning in 1860 is unclear, particularly as she acknowledges that the making of cancer into a ‘female’ disease took place well before the mid-nineteenth century. The first two chapters explore the diverse ways that cancer was understood and treated before c.1900. Moscucci writes clearly and concisely and brings order to an otherwise dizzying array of competing and conflicting aetiological models and therapeutic ideas. Thus, the book makes for a pacey read without sacrificing detail and context, and as an introduction to the social, intellectual and professional history of cancer in modern Britain it is invaluable. The second two chapters consider the gendered politics of two new preventative and therapeutic regimes: cancer awareness campaigns and radiotherapy. Moscucci is right to note the prevailing historiographical focus on the United States and draws useful comparisons between American and British styles of awareness-raising. The final two chapters deal, in different ways, with the interplay between risk, optimism, hope and despair in early-twentieth-century cancer discourse. It is in dealing with these subjects that Moscucci provides the most absorbing accounts. She reflects on the role cancer played in articulations of medical progress, medical identity and medical utopianism. Some of her most intriguing subheadings are those that promise an engagement with the complex semantics of cancer, and it is in her encounters with language that Moscucci most impressively flexes her analytical muscles. Her interrogation of the meanings of ‘incurability’ (p. 50), ‘delay’ (p. 77) and ‘screening’ (p. 218) offer tantalising takes on the conceptual underpinnings of cancer and its role in modern medicine. A recurring theme of Moscucci’s book is the tension between what Science and Technology Studies call the ‘regime of hope’ and the ‘regime of truth’ in twentieth-century medicine (p. 4). She spends time exploring the optimism and pessimism of elite medical practitioners, and their efforts to navigate the line between cultivating a ‘cancerphobic’ society, and an ignorant one. Medical men and women were anxious not to alarm the public unduly but equally wanted patients to alert them early to any irregularities or potential malignancies. In contrast, she devotes almost no space to the alternative cancer paradigms in existence in this period—and makes only occasional reference to alternative medicine and irregular practitioners, who capitalised on their ability to claim curative treatment where regular doctors could often only offer palliative care. Nonetheless, this book gestures towards the troubled relationship between professional self-fashioning and an incurable disease, and in doing so raises many important and timely questions about the role played by cancer in the development of the ideals and practices of modern biomedicine. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Social History of Medicine.
Social History of Medicine – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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