Historical Perspectives On Contemporary Issues

Shopping for Health: Medicine and Markets in America

A forum held at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia on October 11, 2018, and continued online here.


Why do we refer to patients as "consumers" in the United States?

Is today's opioid crisis the result of medical consumerism run amok--of pills hawked like soap to gullible shoppers? Is picking a doctor really like choosing a new car? Join us to discuss when and why patients started to be called "consumers," and to examine the positive and negative aspects of twentieth-century medical "consumerism." We will explore a century of efforts to deliver pharmaceutical relief through properly calibrated markets, and evaluate the risks (and often-misunderstood benefits) of governing addictive drugs as consumer goods.
We invite you to watch the video of the event, read the expert commentary, browse relevant resources from across the Consortium, and join the discussion here. If you are not already a registered member of our web site, please create an account before participating in the discussion.
To view the introductory remarks prefacing the program, please click here.
Questions or comments about this event or others like it? Let us know.




David Herzberg University at Buffalo (SUNY)

David Herzberg is Associate Professor of History at the University at Buffalo (SUNY). His current research explores the history of addictive pharmaceuticals in the 20th century’s consumer culture. Among other places his work has appeared in American Quarterly, the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, the American Journal of Public Health, and in a book on the cultural history of psychiatric medicines titled Happy Pills in America: From Miltown to Prozac.

Nancy Tomes Stony Brook University

Nancy Tomes is Distinguished Professor of History at Stony Brook University. Her research has varied over the course of her career, but has maintained a focus on the intersection between expert knowledge and popular understandings of the body and disease. She has authored four books, including most recently the Bancroft Award winning Remaking the American Patient: How Madison Avenue and Modern Medicine Turned Patients into Consumers.

(Not) Shopping for Health: The Limited Appeal of the Medical Marketplace in a Rights-Based Universal Healthcare System
Roberta Bivins

Department of History, University of Warwick

Roberta Bivins is Professor of History at the University of Warwick. She has published several books ranging in scope from the history of alternative medicine to a study of the intersections of migration and health care delivery in the postwar UK. Professor Bivins is currently co-developing a project that explores the cultural history of the British National Health System to commemorate the 70th anniversary of its founding.

I’d like to thank the speakers for two really stimulating talks. With such provocative material, it’s a pleasure to respond. As my fellow commentator, Dr. Alex Mold, points out in her excellent piece, “Shopping for Health” looks, in some ways, very different from the perspective of the United Kingdom, with its universal health provision free at the point of need.

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Collective Consumer Advocacy and Opioid Addiction in the UK
Alex Mold

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Alex Mold is Associate Professor in History at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where she also serves as Director of the Centre for History in Public Health. Professor Mold's research explores the history of illegal drugs—particularly heroin in 20th-century Britain—as well as the ways that patients' rights, consumer practices, and the "public" have shaped (and been shaped by) medical practices in the UK.

I am very grateful for the invitation to respond to two such wonderful presentations. Nancy and David’s papers speak closely to my own research on the history of patient consumerism in the UK in the second half of the twentieth century, and the development of heroin addiction treatment in Britain over the same period. Both presentations gave me so much to think about, but one of the areas that most interested me surrounds the ways in which the story for the UK is different, but also the same.

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Insights from the Collections

The Consortium’s collections provide many opportunities to learn more about the history of research in human cellular biology, the genetic archive, and heredity. Indeed, a significant amount of the research supporting the presentations in this video was conducted using Consortium-member archives.
Our cross-institutional search tool allows researchers to investigate materials across multiple institutions from a single interface. With more than 4.4 million catalog records of rare books and manuscripts, the Consortium’s search hub offers scholars and the public the ability to identify and locate relevant materials.
Search the Consortium search hub.
Some archival materials related to this topic include:

John T. Carter Papers, College of Physicians of Philadelphia
Daniel Joseph McCarthy Papers, College of Physicians of Philadelphia
Du Pont Merck Pharmaceutical Company miscellany, 1991-1997, Hagley Museum and Library
William H. Helfand Popular Medicine Ephemera Collection, Library Company of Philadelphia
The editorial records of The Medical Letter, a journal of pharmacology, Rockefeller Archive Center
Vincent Dole Papers – Correspondence Files, Rockefeller Archive Center
Commonwealth Fund – Grants, Series 18, Rockefeller Archive Center
Commonwealth Fund – Mental Hygiene Program, Rockefeller Archive Center
Dally, Ann Gwendolen, and Dally, Peter John Papers, Wellcome Collection
William Helfand collection of medical ephemera, 1817-2010, Yale University Library
Medicine and Madison Avenue
Related publications from our speakers:

Remaking the American Patient: How Madison Avenue and Modern Medicine Turned Patients into Consumers, by Nancy Tomes; North Carolina, 2016.
Patients as Policy Actors, edited by Beatrix Hoffman, Nancy Tomes, Rachel Grob, Mark Schlesinger; Rutgers, 2011.
Happy Pills in America: From Miltown to Prozac, by David Herzberg; Johns Hopkins, 2010.
Medicine's Moving Pictures Medicine, Health, and Bodies in American Film and Television, edited by Leslie J. Reagan, Nancy Tomes, Paula A. Treichler; Rochester, 2007.
The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women and the Microbe in American Life, by Nancy Tomes; Harvard, 1999. 
The Art of Asylum-Keeping: Thomas Story Kirkbride and the Origins of American Psychiatry, by Nancy Tomes; Pennsylvania, 1994.
See also recent work from our fellows:

“A Mind Prostrate”: Physicians, Opiates, and Insanity in the Civil War’s Aftermath, Jonathan Jones