Understanding the Beliefs and Languages of the Pas

Understanding the Beliefs and Language of the Past
By Twyla Carolan
"Women and Cancer: Historical Perspectives on the Concept of Risk" is the name of Dr. Patricia Jasen's research project. You may be asking, "What is the concept of risk?" Consider that a smoker is at greater risk of developing cancer. Then consider that "factors that increase risk" (such as lifestyle factors) are words well understood in our society, even though we still may confuse risk and cause. (Smoking increases the risk of cancer, but cannot be said to cause cancer, in the sense that not every smoker develops it.) This language of risk is common today, but was the language the same in the past?
Jasen, professor and chair of the Department of History, received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant of $51,000 in April, 2001, to study this very question. Her research encompasses the period from 1750 to 1970, and focuses on Great Britain, the United States and Canada -- countries which all spoke the same language of risk. Jasen became interested in medical history several years ago, when she began to study such topics as childbirth and the history of alternative medical practices. She was drawn to the subject of women and cancer when she "began to notice that this was an area that was almost completely missing in historical writing." She narrowed her topic to the concept of risk when she realized, "I didn't just want to understand the diagnosis or treatment of cancer through history. I wanted to understand the experience of it. And part of the experience which was shared even by people who never developed cancer was the knowledge of being at risk, or the feeling of being at risk." Jasen says that, historically, the language of risk was different from that which we use today. People occasionally used the term "risk" (even 200 years ago), but more often they referred to "liability" -- which women were more liable to develop cancer?
While studying the language used in various historical periods, Jasen also uncovers the belief systems underlying concepts of risk. Why were physical injury, childbearing, racial differences, and the experience of unhappy emotions all associated with a greater cancer risk? As Jasen seeks to understand the beliefs and language of the past, she emphasizes that her research does not permit her to reach medical conclusions regarding the concept of risk. "It's not for an historian to say whether there is an association between emotions and cancer or not. I'm just looking at what people thought. But I'm also interested in the effects of what people thought." Her research grant permits her to travel to archives and medical libraries to conduct research, and also enables her to employ research assistants -- not only in history but in fields related to her project, such as psychology.
This summer, she will be working with history and women's studies graduate student Mandy Hadenko, whose own research focuses on the history of cervical cancer screening in Canada. Patricia Jasen's research has the potential to be useful to a broad range of people. The history of medicine is a subject included in the training of many health professionals, and she hopes that her work will help to provide a broader understanding of the subject of cancer risk and its implications today -- including the fact that cultural assumptions influence medical beliefs and help to guide the direction of scientific research. "Overall, I think the thing that keeps impressing me is the extent to which medical theories are rooted in the culture in which they evolve."
Twyla Carolan is one of several students taking part in SPARK -- a student writing program sponsored by The Chronicle-Journal.