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BioSocieties

, Volume 14, Issue 4, pp 512–528 | Cite as

Cancer in the tropics: geographical pathology and the formation of cancer epidemiology

  • Lucas M. MuellerEmail author
Original Article

Abstract

Researchers have long been concerned with cancer in what has been called the tropics, developing world, and low- and middle-income countries. Global health advocates' recent calls to attend to an emergent cancer epidemic in these regions were only the latest effort in this long history. Researchers, known as geographical pathologists, sought to determine the etiologies of cancer and other non-infectious diseases between the 1920s and the 1960s by comparing their occurrence across different environments. The geographical pathologists used the concept of the environment to analyze the influences that natural and artificial surroundings had on health. While the international network of geographical pathology fostered medical thinking about environmental health in the early and mid-twentieth century, the very meaning of environment, alongside the scientific methods for studying the environment, changed in this period. In the 1960s, epidemiology, previously used for the study of infectious diseases, displaced geographical pathology as the cohesive framework of cancer research. This signaled a shift in research focus, from one dedicated to diagnostics and the environment to one centered on population and statistical studies. This article shows that it was not the lack of knowledge about cancer in the developing world but rather specific configurations of knowledge that shaped which cancer interventions in the developing world researchers and public health officials conceived.

Keywords

Global health Environmental health Liver cancer History of cancer Geographical pathology Cancer epidemiology 

Notes

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Allan Brandt, Marie Burks, Carlo Caduff, Spring Greeney, David S. Jones, Joseph La Hausse de Lalouvière, Jia Hui Lee, Harriet Ritvo, and Cecilia van Hollen for their feedback on earlier versions of this text. I am grateful for the comments on this material from the participants of the Wellcome-funded Workshop on Cancer and the Global South in May 2017 in London, of the HASTS Program Seminar at MIT, and of the Harvard History of Medicine Working Group. I am also thankful for the comments from the three anononymous reviewers and the editors of BioSocieties.

Archives consulted

Archives of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, Lyon.

Archives of the World Health Organization, Geneva

Funding

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1555448. This research was assisted by a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies and by a Price Fellowship from the Science History Institute.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The author states that there is no conflict of interest.

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© Springer Nature Limited 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Science History InstitutePhiladelphiaUSA
  2. 2.Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and SocietyMassachusetts Institute of TechnologyCambridgeUSA

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