The wars of the 20th century have caused stagnation, triumph, and progress towards curing cancer. Each government decision that has supported cancer research has been coupled with a caveat bound by the external forces influencing it. Historians have analyzed domestic policies regarding cancer research and how they have impacted it, but few have broadened the scope to international conflict. This thesis analyzes the nuances of wars’ influence on cancer research.
Cancer first emerged as a threat in the 1930s, labeled as the ‘dread disease.’ It eventually garnered enough public concern to warrant the National Cancer Institute Act of 1937. Shortly thereafter, World War II interrupted the progress against cancer, reallocating money, personnel, and construction supplies. Private organizations took advantage of the lull in research to focus on educating the public about the dread disease, building momentum for post-war support. One of the most notable successes from the postwar boom in research evolved from a catastrophe of World War II: the air raid of Bari, Italy where mustard gas accidentally detonated. The gas wiped thousands of their bone marrow, revealing a curative property that led to the discovery of the first chemotherapy.
Coupled with the discovery of chemotherapy, radiation oncology emerged as a promising field from the tragedies of World War II, stemming from the atomic bombs. The hasty transition from post-World War II into the Cold War situated radiation oncology as the epicenter of peacetime radiation utilization and wartime pressure to succeed. Government control of isotopes and medical radiation education altered cancer research’s trajectory by placing bureaucratic roadblocks in its way. Invaluable knowledge extracted from the atomic bomb survivors was censored, creating a dichotomy between hindering and helping radiation oncology.
Once the Cold War began to thaw, Soviet American relations became symbiotic with cancer. The warring nations united over the mutual desire to eradicate cancer. This collaboration surcharged cancer research by expediting the journey to a cure. Cold War conflicts such as the Korean and Vietnam Wars usurped resources and at times produced friction between the nations, but the latter half of the 20th century harbored a unified front against cancer.
Through medical journals, newspapers, and mass media, this thesis has extrapolated that international involvement propelled cancer research. Government documentation has recorded cancer legislation and collaborations that have been influenced by external forces. The goals of government-run cancer campaigns can be understood through presidential speeches and national archives. The culmination of these sources formed a narrative of geopolitical influences altering cancer research. Since the pervasive disease cannot be siloed from international conflict, the path to eradicating cancer will continue to be subject to peripheral events surrounding it.