University of Minnesota

The 1937 U.S. National Cancer Act: critical precedent for heart disease research

The heart movement in the U.S. owes much to the mavericks who established the precedent of separate institutes for research on particular diseases within the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In fact, it was Congressman Maverick (D., Texas) who in 1936 first introduced a House bill devoted to cancer research, the National Cancer Act. And it was Maverick’s contemporary, Senator Bone (D, Washington), who submitted his Senate bill in 1937 for a National Cancer Institute, paired with an identical bill introduced in the House by his colleague, Warren Magnusen (D. Washington). Senator Bone had been advised by President Roosevelt about using the strategy to tack amendments onto proposed appropriations, and so attached his cancer legislation to a bill for a popular health cause, venereal disease control.

When public endorsements descended upon Congress favoring these legislative proposals on cancer, a compromise bill, the National Cancer Act, was briskly joined by both houses and enacted in July 1937. In fact, however, the landmark legislation had to override powerful opposition to a National Cancer Act and Institute from the medical community. For example, the USPHS advisory council on cancer was against it. The chairperson of the separate National Cancer Advisory Council, James Ewing, added skeptically: “This solution [to cancer] will come when science is ready for it and cannot be hastened by pouring sums of money into the effort” (Strickland, 1972, pg.14).

Then, the American Medical Association raised a characteristic shriek about “socialism:” “The danger of putting the government in the dominant position in relation to medical research is apparent” (ibid.).

But in 1937 the deed was done. And with it the road was paved, for better or worse, for the now-numerous national institutes for discrete diseases and the centralized system and organization of U.S. research around the National Institutes of Health. Most researchers today owe their careers and sustenance, and the U.S. owes its world leadership in research, to all those who built NIH into its international power as the center of scientific medicine.

Note, however, the increasing fractionation into specialties of this national research strategy, with its many agencies and special interests, along with dominion by bench and clinical science over priorities in the extramural investigational system of NIH, which have rarely been questioned and never adequately evaluated. In any case, heart enthusiasts today owe much to these earlier advocates for both cancer and heart disease.(Henry Blackburn)


Strickland, S. 1972. Politics, science and dread disease: A short history of the United States medical research policy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.