In recent years lung cancer specialists have complained that due to stigma resulting from the association of the disease with smoking, theirs is a neglected field. This paper demonstrates that in the 1950s and 1960s, when the British Medical Research Council (MRC) started to organize clinical trials for various forms of cancer, this was not the case. Rather, the organizers of these trials saw lung cancer as a particularly promising object of research, for much was known about the disease. The cancer trials were part of a strategy to use the Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) technology to cement the role of the MRC as the dominant body overseeing medical research in Britain. The organization of the trials, however, turned out to be very difficult, due to ethical problems and the dominance of one form of therapy, surgery. The trial results were deeply disappointing. I argue that these frustrating results contributed to the notion of hopelessness that has come to surround lung cancer, and to the shift of focus from cure to prevention that was triggered by epidemiologic studies identifying tobacco smoke as the main cause of the disease. The paper deals with an important episode in the history of clinical cancer research in postwar Britain, illustrating the ethical and practical problems faced by the organizers.


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pp. 312-334
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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