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Molecular Medicine in the War on Cancer:

Success or Failure?

"A virologist is among the luckiest of biologists because he can see into his chosen pet down to the details of all of its molecules."

  • —David Baltimore, 1975

Accepting his Nobel Prize for his part in the identification of reverse transcriptase, David Baltimore reflected on the “luck” that virologists enjoyed in their ability to see into problems with molecular precision. Although this vision seems inspiring and compelling today, Baltimore spoke at a time of fierce debate among biologists, legislators, and clinicians as to what, if anything, this molecular approach to disease offered. Many were concerned that seeing into the molecular roots of illness left other problems invisible. This lecture will examine debates over the identification of human cancer viruses and the development of a cancer vaccine during the War on Cancer, an attempt larger than the Human Genome Project, as a case for understanding the promises and pitfalls of molecular medicine. As the 50th anniversary of the War on Cancer approaches, this history also provides an opportunity to reflect on the ramifications of how success or failure are defined for the future pathways of biomedical research.

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This event is sponsored by the Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum.  Our office advances the historical understanding of the biomedical research conducted at the NIH by documenting, preserving, and interpreting the history of significant NIH achievements, scientists, and policies.  Visit us at    

Flier: Lecture Series_R_Scheffler.pdf (PDF – 8.17 MB)

Date/Time: December 16, 2021, 1:00–2:00 p.m. ET

Videocast link:

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Photo of Robin Scheffler.

Robin Scheffler is an Associate Professor within the Program in the Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He studies the history of the modern biological and biomedical sciences and their intersections with developments in American history. His first book, A Contagious Cause, follows the history of cancer virus research in the twentieth century from legislature to laboratory, documenting its origins and impact on the modern biological sciences. He is currently writing a book on the history of the biotechnology industry in Boston, supported by the National Science Foundation and MIT's Levitan Prize in the Humanities. He is in the early stages of preparing a chemical biography of dioxins. The common goal of Professor Scheffler’s projects is to understand the mutual influence of science on society and of society on science.