The Future's War on Cancer
This month marks the 40th anniversary of the formal declaration of the War on Cancer. When President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act on December 23, 1971 he described the legislation as a “national commitment for the conquest of cancer.” The Act expanded federal funding for cancer research and Nixon said that he hoped, “in the years ahead that we may look back on this day and this action as being the most significant action taken during this Administration.”
The term, “war on cancer” wasn’t coined in the 1970s but dates back at least to the early 1900s. Somewhat ironically, a series of promotional cards packaged with cigarettes in the 1930s included a card that explained how the latest cutting edge technology could help win the “War on Cancer.”
When scientists first begin to create synthetic radio-activity, to make substitutes for radium, by bombarding certain atoms with millions of electron-volts, someone suggested, “Why make radium to cure cancer? Use the bombarding atoms direct.” This suggestion was adopted by the use of very high voltage X-rays. Many successful experiments have been made.
The 1956 book 1999: Our Hopeful Future by Victor Cohn includes a chapter called “Medicine’s promise: long, lively life.” Cohn was a science and health reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune before moving to the Washington Post in 1968 and began writing a weekly health column called “The Patient’s Advocate.” In his book, Cohn doesn’t mince words when articulating the optimism people of the 1950s had for medical breakthroughs:
If any field is on the move today, it is medicine. If any offers hope and promise to average people, this is it. Medicine today outdates much of the medicine of ten years ago, or five years, or one. A number of diseases are being conquered, and new keys are opening biological doors. Average life expectancy, today at an all-time high, could in our generation increase ten more years.
Cohn goes on to explain how people thought a cancer cure might be found:
In cancer a possibility is surgical meddling with glands. Surgeons are already removing adrenal glands in experiments to treat prostate and breast cancer. Medicine feverishly seeks to identify the chemical environment that permits uncontrolled cell growth, and to understand how cells grow. Uncontrolled growth is the one element common to all cancers.
The 1973 book 1994: The World of Tomorrow published by U.S. News and World Report includes a chapter on what people can expect of medicine by the mid-1990s. While the book is optimistic, it doesn’t have the same faith that Cohn had in the 1950s. Dr. Michael B. Shimkin, whose population studies at the National Cancer Institute in the 1950s would help show a link between smoking and lung cancer, is quoted in the book:
Although truly useful drugs for the treatment of cancer are still in the future, there is no reason but to be optimistic that they eventually will be found… Cancer research is but a small segment of the total human endeavor in biomedical sciences. It can advance only as rapidly as progress is recorded in the various “disciplines,” where the boundaries are academic conveniences… Cancer research has no place for limited or fixed concepts, for vested interests, for orthodoxy. But we can stand firm on this: cancer is a solvable problem, solvable by a human thought and action process that we call scientific research, and within capabilities of human intelligence with which man was endowed by his Creator.
This article originally appeared at Smithsonian magazine.