UNC Professor One Of 10 International Recipients Of A $1 Million McDonnell Foundation Centennial Fellowship

January 26, 1999

CHAPEL HILL -- Dr. Keith A. Wailoo, associate professor of social medicine and history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been named one of 10 international recipients of a $1 million James S. McDonnell Centennial Fellowship.

The Fellowship targets 10 early career scientist-scholars for work that will contribute substantially to the development of knowledge and its responsible application in the next century. Wailoo will use the award to pursue an extended historical study of disease and the biomedical sciences in the 20th century. In particular, he proposes to examine how people's ideas about their illnesses like breast cancer, prostate cancer, and sickle cell anemia have changed over the course of this century, and the extent to which scholarship in the biological sciences and clinical practices have addressed patients' changing concerns and societal perceptions about disease.

As one of two fellowships awarded in the History and Philosophy of Science, Wailoo's historical project has the unusual virtue of bearing on contemporary problems. "A central feature of 20th century biomedicine," Wailoo said, "is that our scientific understanding of diseases like breast cancer, for example, has been changing constantly and dramatically -- most recently with the discovery of a breast cancer gene."

"These developments have complex implications for people's lives and perception of what it means to have breast cancer," said the McDonnell Fellowship recipient. "For example, mothers and daughters begin to think of breast cancer as familial. And these developments can have important implications for clinical practice -- leading, for example, to the increasing practice of preventive mastectomies." The point of his historical study, Wailoo said, is to investigate and assess this interaction of science, medicine, and human understanding about disease throughout the 20th century in cancer, and three other areas of biomedicine -- genetic disease, immunology, and pain. "It would be a mistake," he said, "to think that we understand these recent developments without paying attention, for example, to how and why women's health issues have become as important as they have since the 1960s." Thus, the study brings together the study of medicine and science with the study of culture and society.

Wailoo's award is among ten fellowships being in five categories -- Astrophysics and Cosmology, Human Genetics, Global and Complex Systems, Human Cognition, and History and Philosophy of Science. Susan Fitzpatrick, McDonnell Foundation program director, said, "The research carried out by the recipients certainly has the potential to transform the way we think about our world." Wailoo, along with recipients working in France, Canada, Germany, Scotland, and the United States, will receive their awards in a ceremony during the National Academy of Sciences meeting in early April.

Over the next eight years, Wailoo will also use the award to organize public symposia on such topics as "Cancer in 20th Century Society," "Immunology: From Vaccines to Transplants," and "Pain in America," as well as several small scholarly workshops on the history of biomedicine in these areas. "These workshops and public conferences will allow physicians, historians, scientists, and the public to come together to have serious discussions about how we've done in our handling of disease problems from diphtheria and infectious disease to cancer and AIDS in this century" he said. Books on these topics will come out of the research, as will a final book entitled "The Pursuit of Clinical Science in the 20th Century." "By looking at how people, scientists, and physicians at other times and in other places have dealt with disease," Wailoo said, "I hope this project will inform how our own society responds to new developments, in areas from gene therapy to the HIV vaccine."

A very productive scholar, age 36, Wailoo received an American Public Health Award for his first book, "Drawing Blood" -- a study of clinical medicine, laboratory science, professional rivalries, pharmaceutical progress, and race and gender relations in 20th century notions about blood and blood disease. His forthcoming book, "Dying in the City of the Blues," is an absorbing study of sickle cell anemia and black health in Memphis, Tennessee and will be published by the University of North Carolina Press.

Candidates for the fellowship were judged by an international panel of distinguished scientists and scholars who considered the entrants' previous scholarship and promise, excellence of proposed research programs, and ability to communicate the relevance of the research to broad audiences. The 10 recipients showed a remarkable ability to discuss the relevance of their research to issues facing society as it enters the 21st century. "James S. McDonnell believed that science and technology gave mankind the power to shape the future and the obligation to shape that future to benefit what is noble in mankind," said John McDonnell, son of the aeronautics innovator and founder of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, a major private philanthropy headquartered in St. Louis. "These recipients personify my father's ideals." The awards mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the senior McDonnell.

Wailoo, whose Ph.D. is in the History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania, has taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 1992 in the Department of Social Medicine in the School of Medicine, and in the Department of History. For the current academic year, he is on professional leave, teaching at Harvard University in the Departments of the History of Science and the Department of Afro-American Studies.

The James S. McDonnell Foundation was established in 1950 by the late aerospace pioneer and founder of the McDonnell Douglas Corporation. The foundation awards approximately $20 million a year in support of biomedical and behavioral research.
Dr. Wailoo can be reached at 617-495-9953.

University of North Carolina Health Care

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