The Science of Human Perfection


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How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine

Nathaniel Comfort

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Almost daily we hear news stories, advertisements, and scientific reports promising that genetic medicine will make us live longer, enable doctors to identify and treat diseases before they harm us, and individualize our medical care. But surprisingly, a century ago eugenicists were making the same promises. This book traces the history of the promises of medical genetics and of the medical dimension of eugenics. While mindful of the benefits of genetic medicine, the book also considers social and ethical issues that cast troublesome shadows over these fields.

Keeping his focus on America, Nathaniel Comfort introduces the community of scientists, physicians, and public health workers who have contributed to the development of medical genetics from the nineteenth century to today. He argues that medical genetics is closely related to eugenics, and indeed that the two cannot be fully understood separately. He also carefully examines how the desire to relieve suffering and to improve ourselves genetically, though noble, may be subverted. History makes clear that as patients and consumers we must take ownership of genetic medicine, using it intelligently, knowledgeably, and skeptically.

Nathaniel Comfort is associate professor, Department of the History of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, and a participant in The Oral History of Human Genetics project.

“Comfort explains how eugenics became part of medicine, and how medical and human genetics therefore derive in large part from eugenics.  The great strength of this book is to work this through agnostically and calmly.”—Alison Bashford, The University of Sydney


"Comfort's compelling narrative transforms our understanding of the history of human genetics in the United States. This book sheds penetrating light on how the simultaneously meritorious and fraught goals of biological improvement and of the alleviation of physical suffering have driven the development of genetic science."—Alexandra Stern, University of Michigan
"This is a rich and important book, laced with lively vignettes and provocative judgments, Comfort  recounts with an unblinking eye the evolution of medical genetics from its origins in eugenics to the era of the genome. An absorbing and informative work."—Daniel J. Kevles, Stanley Woodward Professor of History, Yale University, and author of In the Name of Eugenics


"Nathaniel Comfort – an historian of medical genetics aims to demonstrate with extensive historical data that the rejection of eugenics when compared with modern medical genetics is not fully justified. A novel interpretation of the 100 year history of heredity and health in North America!"—Arno G. Motulsky, author of Vogel and Motulsky, Human Genetics, 4th Edition, 2010

“A well-balanced consideration of both the promise and problems involved in the scientific search for human betterment.”—Kirkus Reviews

“[An] intriguing history…Comfort provides some complex food for thought about the balance between creating good for individuals and for the human species, and about the ways we define the methods we use.”

Publishers Weekly

“[A] beautifully written account of how genes became central to American medicine.”—Science 

“Other books. . . have traced portions of the history of genetics, but none have put together the whole story in the way that Comfort has.”—Choice

“This is the ideal scientific history: details of the science itself are integrated with the intimate details of the extended family that made up the field generation by generation, through the workers’ correspondence with each other and through the oral histories. It is their internal history, informed by records of the workers’ own thoughts, feelings, and words. And it suggests a new approach to the history of eugenics.”—Pauline M. H. Mazumdar, Bulletin of the History of Medicine
“Excellent . . . bears all the marks of an outstanding social and intellectual history of medical genetics . . . readers of this fine book will find [it] an accessible, yet nuanced, account.”—Stephen Pemberton, Isis
“[I]t is always a joy to watch a skilled craftsman at work, and the pleasure in this case is doubled as Comfort wields the two crafts of doing history and of word-smithy with equal finesse. As a historian I was delighted to see so many different types of primary and secondary source materials – published scientific and technical papers, personal papers and popular writings – all in one place. I can already foresee assigning this book as a one-stop example in a historical methods course in the not-too-distant future.”—Neeraja Sankaran, Journal of the History of Biology
“[A] whirlwind tour through twentieth-century human genetics.”—Nature Medicine

"All in all, The Science of Human Perfection is a well-researched and well-written book; not only is it a pleasure to read, but it is also a necessary and vital contribution to our knowledge of genetic medicine and the social and political milieu where scientific ideas, past and present, arise and continue to develop."—Norberto Serpente, University College London

"The Science of Human Perfection offers a compelling reinterpretation of the history of both eugenics and medical genetics. Subtly argued, richly detailed, beautifully written, and appropriately discomforting, this is a masterful study that challenges many of our unreflective contemporary assumptions about the history and nature of medical genetics, as well as the idea that eugenics was somehow something we ever left behind."—Luis Campos, University of New Mexico
Selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2013 in the Health Sciences Category.
ISBN: 9780300169911
Publication Date: September 25, 2012
336 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
25 scattered b/w images
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