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Week 20

Theme Four: Medicine, science, and the family

Week 20

Inheriting Illness part 2: genes, families, and the patient role

What does it mean to be ‘sick’? When and why do we define ourselves to be ‘patients’? Today we will examine the ‘patient identity’ and the related phenomenon of ‘medicalization’, and explore the ways in which new genetic technologies have affected our understandings of health and the risk of illness.


SecondLife Panel Presentations

This week, students in each group who have participated in the module on SecondLife will collectively reflect on their experiences in a group presentation to their peers. Students should meet IN ADVANCE to plan their presentations.


[If time permits] Seminar topic: Diagnosis, prognosis, and risk in the genetic age: censoring the body?

Compare and contrast the roles of new medical knowledge and technology in the cases of ‘Typhoid Mary’ and ‘Experiencing the new genetics’. What is medicalization, and is it new? Are the implications different for genetic, rather than bacteriological ‘carriers’?



Essential Reading

  • Judith Walzer Leavitt, Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), Chapters 1-3.
  • Kaja Finkler, Experiencing the New Genetics: Family and kinship on the medical frontier. (Philadelphia: Upenn Press, 2000), Chapters ‘5: People with a Genetic History I: patients without symptoms’, ‘6 People with a Genetic History II: recovered patients’, and ‘8: The Ideology of Genetic Inheritance in Contemporary Life: The medicalization of kinship’

If you cannot get one of the chapters above, read:,disease,%20and%20racial%20medicine/19.html and explore the content at:



Background and Further Reading:

Gibbon, Sarah. 2002. "Re-Examining Geneticization: Family Trees in Breast Cancer Genetics." Science as Culture, 11(4): 429-459.

Raul Necochea, ‘From Cancer Families to HNPCC: Henry Lynch and the Transformations of Hereditary Cancer, 1975-1999’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Volume 81, Number 1, Spring 2007, pp. 267-285 (Article)

Paolo Palladino, ‘Between Knowledge and Practice: On Medical Professionals, Patients, and the Making of the Genetics of Cancer’. Social Studies of Science 32(1) 2002:137-166.

Nancy Press, Jennifer R. Fishman, and Barbara A. Koenig. 2000. ‘Collective Fear, Individualized Risk: The Social and Cultural Context of Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer’, Nursing Ethics 7(3): 237-249.

Dorothy Nelkin and Laurence Tancredi, Dangerous Diagnostics: The Social Power of Biological Information. New York: Basic Books, 1989

Nancy G. Slack, ‘Review: Biological Diagnostics: Boon and Bane’, The Hastings Center Report, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Jan. - Feb., 1991), pp. 38-40

Stuart S. Blume, The Rhetoric and Counter-Rhetoric of a "Bionic" Technology, Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Winter, 1997), pp. 31-56 (cochlear implants)