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Medical Eugenics to Genomic Medicine

Contemporary genetic medicine is both revolutionary and deeply traditional. Our mastery of the molecules of life is unprecedented - yet modern medical genomics shares some of the same basic goals with the eugenicists and geneticists of the early 20th century. Join Dr. Nathaniel Comfort, Associate Professor at the Institute for the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University, on January 24th at STS@VCU’s “Art of Medicine” lecture series as he discusses how genetics became medical - and how medicine became genetic.

For most people, the word ‘eugenics’ conjures historical horrors such as World War Two’s Nazi race hygiene campaign, or, closer to home, America’s own Progressive-era sterilization laws designed to eliminate what early twentieth-century scientists and policy-makers saw as socially dangerous hereditary tendencies. Medicine no longer sanctions such arbitrary diagnoses or draconian policies.

But in his provocative new book, The Science of Human Perfection, medical historian Nathaniel Comfort demonstrates that the American drive to improve health through science is something that historical eugenics and contemporary medical genetics share. Comfort shows how genes became central to medicine not (as most biology students assume) in the 1950s, after Watson and Crick discovered the double helical structure of DNA, but much earlier -- through the work of a motley crew of geneticists, psychologists, clinicians, public-health workers, zoologists and statisticians seeking to use heredity to improve human life.

Recognizing this historical continuity, he argues, acknowledges “the hybridization of science and medicine” as “one of the defining characteristics of twentieth-century healthcare.” Comfort concludes that only by illuminating the consistent dual impulse of medical genetics as a field – toward the relief of suffering and toward human perfection – can we create the space to allow for critical ethical and political discussions about hereditary knowledge in our contemporary lives.

The lecture, “From Medical Eugenics to Genomic Medicine: 100 Years of Relieving Suffering and the Self-Direction of Human Evolution” featuring Dr.Comfort will be Thursday, January 24th, 4:00 p.m., VCU Student Commons, 907 Floyd Avenue, Richmond Salons, Second Floor. It is free and open to the public.

STS@VCU is VCU’s “Science, Technology, and Society” Program, the mission of which is to encourage members of the VCU and Richmond communities to think more broadly about scientific, technological, and medical work -- not just across disciplines but also across the science and humanities divide. STS@VCU offers annual themed lecture series as well as coordinated curricular planning, such as an undergraduate minor in Medical Humanities. For more information on the program or the lecture series, contact Wanda Clary, wclary@vcu.edu or visit has.vcu.edu/sts/.

Article by Dr. Karen Rader, Director STS Program, Virginia Commonwealth University

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