Congrats to grad student Natalie Aviles, whose paper “The Little Death: Rigoni-Stern and the Problem of Sex and Cancer in Twentieth Century Biomedical Research,” has been accepted for publication in Social Studies of Science!
Approaches to the organization and conduct of cancer research changed dramatically throughout the twentieth century. Despite marked differences between the epidemiological approaches to establishing etiology that characterized the first half of the century and molecular techniques that gained dominance in the 1980s, prominent twentieth-century researchers investigating the link between sexual activity and anogenital cancers continuously invoked the same 1842 treatise by Italian surgeon Domenico Rigoni-Stern. In this paper I investigate references to Rigoni-Stern as one instance of a broader phenomenon whereby scientists develop narratives of venerated ancestors, or originators, that construct their work in the context of past achievements. Explaining the shifting interpretations packaged in originator narratives in light of their authors’ cultural context and research practices allows us to reimagine references previous scholars have treated as specious rhetorical maneuvers as meaningful cultural symbols. In this case, references to Rigoni-Stern as originator of the problem of establishing a causal link between sex and cancer provide an interpretive anchor whereupon American scientists construct continuity between their work and a diverse historical legacy of cancer research.