The Acute Problem of Chronic Disease in Twentieth Century Epidemiology

A PSC Brown Bag Seminar

Aaron Mauck (Research Fellow, Epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of Michigan)

Monday, 09/19/2011.   ARCHIVED EVENT

Location: 6050 ISR Thompson St

The early twentieth century marked a moment of triumph for public health, as bacteriological tools developed in the laboratory were put to work in the field to control many infectious diseases. But the declining death rate from infection exacerbated incipient professional anxiety over diseases that persisted, especially chronic diseases lacking an apparent infectious cause. Anecdotal evidence had long suggested that such diseases were on the rise, although the origins, extent, and implications of this increase remained hotly debated. Researchers looking to better understand the threat such diseases posed were confronted with serious methodological challenges, many of which were overcome by reorienting public health research away from the laboratory towards increasingly complex population-based studies. In designing these studies, researchers often sought the advice of social science experts who lacked formal training in public health, but were statistically adept and familiar with a range of survey techniques. This collaboration between social scientists and public health researchers proved instrumental in raising the profile of chronic disease as a pressing public health concern. In this talk, I will discuss how the techniques of epidemiological research were developed in response to three widely-discussed chronic diseases of the twentieth century— cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Despite significant advances in our understanding of these conditions, many of the methodological problems researchers identified early in the twentieth century have never been adequately resolved, and remain a source of interesting research questions.

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