Ava Alkon

  • Fellowship year:2010-2011
  • University: Columbia University
  • Dissertation Topic/Category: Sociomedical Sciences
  • Dissertation Title: Late Twentieth-Century Consumer Advocacy, Pharmaceuticals, and Public Health: a Historical Study of the Public Citizen¬ís Health Research Group (HRG)
  • This paper examines select efforts of HRG’s—one of the first and most influential consumer advocacy organizations to focus on prescription drug issues—between 1971, when the Group was founded by Ralph Nader and Dr. Sidney Wolfe, and 2000. Drawing in part on archival research carried out using HRG’s internal records and interviews with Dr. Wolfe and other key figures in the organization’s history, the paper situates some of HRG’s attempts to influence federal drug regulation and consumer behavior with respect to drugs within both the specific social, economic, and political climate that brought forth a resurgent, altered “health Left,” and the longer histories of American consumer activism and of political reform efforts aimed at affecting social determinants of health. The Group’s accomplishments and failures, its paradoxical attributes of resilience, visibility, and relative marginality, illuminate the prospects for and limitations of modern consumer advocacy as a mode of seeking political reform and as a form of public health activism.
    This dissertation binds together two distinct areas of focus within the literature of American history, drawing on work by 1) economic, social, and political historians who have debated the effectiveness of consumer movements in securing political reforms throughout the 20th century, and 2) historians of science and public health who have studied the interfaces of industry, consumer society, science, and health. The project builds most directly on the work of historians who have in recent years begun to treat the history of pharmaceutical development, marketing, and use as something much more complex than the search for and dissemination of “magic bullets.” Scholars have addressed the iterative relationship between disease distribution and definion and drug development; the networks that bound academic scientists, regulators, and drug companies ever-more tightly after WWII; the contested process by which American pharmaceutical regulation has been formed and reformed; and the impact of the women’s movement and groups organized around particular diseases (AIDS activists, in particular) on drug development.