The Ohio State University Department of History
and The Medical Heritage Center
10th Annual John C. Burnham Lecture in the History of Medicine
Dr. George Weisz
Cotton-Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine, McGill University

“The Reinvention of Chronic Disease in the 20th Century”

The term “chronic” has existed for many centuries to describe illnesses that unfold slowly, in contrast to acute diseases that either kill or disappear quickly. But in the early 20th century, “chronic disease” took on an entirely new meaning; it was reframed as a social problem that demanded significant reform of health care institutions. It has been argued that this development was a natural response to what has been called the “demographic transition”—that the decline in infectious diseases, allowed diseases like cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease to assume new significance. While this view has some validity, it ignores the fact that the process occurred almost exclusively in the United States until around the 1950s, when chronic disease appeared on a limited scale in Britain as part of an effort to deal with the institutionalized elderly. The term did not assume policy significance in France until the 21st century. In the first part of this talk I shall try to explain why the term emerged as a useful category of thought and action in the American health arena between 1920 and 1960 and how “objective” data was produced that confirmed the existence of a “chronic disease plague”. The second section of the talk will focus on France, where institutional conditions made the notion of chronic disease virtually invisible for much of the 20th century.

George Weisz is Cotton-Hannah Chair for the History of Medicine at McGill University. His recent books include Divide and Conquer: A Comparative History of Medical Specialization, 1830-1950 (2006) and, as co-editor, Body Counts: Medical Quantification in Historical and Sociological Perspectives // La Quantification médicale, perspectives historiques et sociologiques (2005) and Healing the World’s Children: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Child Health in the Twentieth Century (2008).  He is currently completing a book on Chronic Disease in the Twentieth Century for the Johns Hopkins University Press.

Thursday, October 25, 2012
Reception at 4:00 pm; Lecture at 4:30 pm
OSU Health Sciences Library Medical Heritage Center (5th Floor)

Prior Hall | 376 West 10th Avenue, Columbus, OH
Wexner Medical Center at The Ohio State University
FREE and open to the public
Parking: We suggest parking in the SAFEAUTO Hospitals Garage. Please visit for maps and parking information. Visit or call (614) 292-9966 for event information.