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Biomedical Computing

Digitizing Life in the United States

Joseph November

Publication Year: 2012

Imagine biology and medicine today without computers. What would laboratory work be like without electronic databases and statistical software? Would disciplines like genomics even be feasible without the means to manage and manipulate huge volumes of digital data? How would patients fare in a world without CT scans, programmable pacemakers, and computerized medical records? Today, computers are a critical component of almost all research in biology and medicine. Yet, just fifty years ago, the study of life was by far the least digitized field of science, its living subject matter thought too complex and dynamic to be meaningfully analyzed by logic-driven computers. In this long-overdue study, historian Joseph A. November explores the early attempts, in the 1950s and 1960s, to computerize biomedical research in the United States. Computers and biomedical research are now so intimately connected that it is difficult to imagine when such critical work was offline. Biomedical Computing transports readers back to such a time and investigates how computers first appeared in the research lab and doctor's office. November examines the conditions that made possible the computerization of biology—including strong technological, institutional, and political support from the National Institutes of Health—and shows not only how digital technology transformed the life sciences but also how the intersection of the two led to important developments in computer architecture and software design. The history of this phenomenon is only vaguely understood. November's thoroughly researched and lively study makes clear for readers the motives behind computerizing the study of life and how that technology profoundly affects biomedical research even today.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. ix-x

I have become indebted to many people in the course of researching and writing this book. What follows is by no means a comprehensive account of that debt. Foremost, I wish to extend my gratitude to my wife, Sultana Banulescu. Her unwavering faith in my ability to write a good book was the main force . . .

Abbreviations, Acronyms, and Initialisms

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pp. xiii-xvi

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pp. 1-18

One does not need to be a scientist, a physician, or a computer expert to have felt the effects of the introduction of computers to biology and medicine. For most recipients of healthcare services in a Western society chances are good that much of the research as well as the diagnostic and . . .

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1 Putting Molecular Biology and Medical Diagnosis into Metal Brains: Operations Research and the Origins of Biomedical Computing

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pp. 19-66

On any given Monday morning,” wrote Arnold “Scotty” Pratt of his early years as director of the National Institutes of Health’s computing facility, “it was often necessary for the staff to make a new commitment to self and country.” The IBM 650 that Pratt’s team operated in the late 1950s, . . .

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2 Building Tomorrow’s Biomedicine: The National Institutes of Health’s Early Mission to Computerize Biology and Medicine

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pp. 67-123

To James Shannon, the breakthroughs in Cambridge, England, during the early 1950s were an inspiration. They indicated to him that a productive, new approach to studying life was afoot. At its root, he declared, was “the fact that the research of Watson and Crick on nucleic acid structure and that of . . .

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3 The LINC Revolution: The Forgotten Biomedical Origins of Personal Computing

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pp. 124-170

In 1961, while the efforts of the National Institutes of Health to mathematize and reform the life sciences faltered, computer designer Wesley Clark was spending time he had taken off from his job at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory to devise ways to turn the problem of biologists’ apparent incompatibility with . . .

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4 A New Way of Life: Computing in the Lab, in the Clinic, and at the Foundation

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pp. 171-219

By 1965, dozens of laboratories and clinics across the United States were operating electronic digital computers. For the users, installing and beginning to make regular use of these computers was an exciting process. They had at their disposal machines that could perform calculations many times faster . . .

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5 Martians, Experts, and Universitas: Biomedical Computing at Stanford University, 1960–1966

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pp. 220-268

Perhaps the best way to understand how computers changed the study of life and vice versa is to take a close look at the formation of a major center of biomedical computing. One such center, at Stanford University, had by the late 1960s emerged as a leading nexus for the exchange of ideas between life . ..

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pp. 269-276

Not only do physicians today tote machines that are explicitly computers, but many of their instruments also have tiny computers embedded within them. When Lee Lusted scratched out the above bit of “doggerel” on his way to a conference in 1962, the notion of fitting a computer into a . . .


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pp. 277-322

Essay on Sources

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pp. 323-330


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pp. 331-344

E-ISBN-13: 9781421406657
E-ISBN-10: 1421406659
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421404684
Print-ISBN-10: 1421404680

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 17 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science