Global Knowledge, Global Legitimacy? Transatlantic Biomedicine since 1970

Global Knowledge, Global Legitimacy? Transatlantic Biomedicine since 1970

Axel Jansen (GHI Washington) and Claudia Roesch (GHI Washington)
German Historical Institute Washington
United States
From - Until
06.09.2019 - 07.09.2019
GHI Washington

When the French pharmaceutical company Roussell Uclaff, a subsidiary of the German chemical giant Hoechst AG, was ready to introduce an abortion pill in 1988, American activists flooded the company’s headquarters near Frankfurt with protest letters. In response, the company’s German CEO mandated to stop the project. But the French state – a Hoechst minority shareholder – took the idea across the border, patented it, and embarked on medical trials for the new product in France.

Ten years later, scientists in the United States successfully isolated human embryonic stem cells. The country’s regulatory framework had left them free to let the cells proliferate indefinitely. But researchers adopted concepts implemented in Britain to limit the cells’ growth to 13 days after gestation.

Such examples illustrate the transnational implications of controversies arising from scientific research and therapies evolving in academic settings and in companies coordinating their efforts globally. Global research practices have raised questions about the reach of regulations. Scientific findings and technologies have prompted support and resistance informed by beliefs and worldviews, some with transnational scope and with an impact on national laws as well as on the regulation of research and therapy. Cultural, moral, or religious considerations have affected the ways in which scientific insights or technologies were enabled, received, or restricted. Concerns about the availability of therapies sparked public debates and led to national and global responses by advocacy groups, foundations, political parties and governments. This conference will focus on the national/global nexus through the prism of biomedicine and its context since 1970.

The role of biomedicine has shifted over the past half-century. It was shaped by economic and political developments and it prompted cultural and political responses. Many of these developments were considered central to the transatlantic world in a global context, and this provides us with an opportunity to use biomedicine as a prism for investigating the history of the past half century. Such efforts can build on research in different subfields: Economists and legal scholars have been interested in evolving industries, concepts of intellectual property, or the impact of legislation such as the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act on American universities. Political scientists have focused on the challenges to ethics and regulation of global research in national contexts. Historians of science and medicine have dealt with the debates sparked by cognitive developments in specific fields and the ramifications of shifting structures within biomedical and clinical research. Scholars of contemporary history have emphasized the cultural, social, and political implications of medical advances such as the pill, assisted reproduction, PID, or DNA testing in societies on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. For this conference, we would like to bring together colleagues from relevant fields to discuss the shifting role and impact of biomedical science and medical therapy since 1970 and to develop from it larger themes for writing the history of this period.

One key focus concerns the relationship between the global setting for research, transnational public debates about its implications, and the political responses in nation-states including the US. While public as well as private research is global in scale, its moral implications frequently play out in debates that are coordinated or echo across borders, with political consequences that are shaped by national governments and sometimes coordinated with supranational organizations such as the EU or the UN. While biomedical research has been global in nature, its regulation has stubbornly resisted integration with a globalized narrative historians have sought to develop. What narratives evolve from a history of biomedicine and its uses on different national, transatlantic, and global levels? How do we relate advances in biomedical research to the history of legitimizing it? How has this relationship changed since 1970? We invite papers that identify larger themes for the history of the past fifty years from concrete examples in the history of biomedicine.

Topic areas may include: (1) Changes in the global and national settings for research such as universities, private or public research institutions, and industry; (2) Responses to research and medical options and their significance for changing cultural, moral, or religious beliefs; (3) The transnational and national roles of individual researchers, professional associations, expert panels, foundations, advocacy groups (including patients), politicians, and religious communities; (4) Larger shifts in the intellectual framework for assessing such changes, including discourses on markets, individual responsibility, and justice; (5) The role of supranational actors such as the WHO, the EU or the UN in national and global publics; (6) Case studies such as the national and global dimensions of debates about the beginning of life, the value of the individual, family and gender norms, or the relationship between humans and nature

We aim to publish the papers presented at the conference as an edited book or as a special issue of a journal. Confirmed conference participants include Susan Lederer (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Bruno Strasser (University of Geneva and Yale University).

The conference will be held at the GHI Washington. Travel and accommodation costs will be covered by the institute. The deadline for proposals (for a 25-minute paper) is December 15, 2018. Please send an abstract of no more than 300 words and a short CV (1-2 pages) in one single PDF document to For further information about the conference, please contact Claudia Roesch (


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Claudia Roesch
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