History of Medicine

Interpreting the Genetic Revolution: Genetic Counseling, Biological Risk, and the Shaping of Modern American Biopolitics.

I am the recent beneficiary of an AMS Postdoctoral Fellowship, an award that has been instrumental in allowing me to continue my research on the history of medical genetics and genetic counseling. After earning my Ph.D in History from McMaster University in 2013, I completed a 2-year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Postdoctoral Fellowship. I applied for an AMS Fellowship to carry on my book project, Interpreting the Genetic Revolution: Genetic Counseling, Biological Risk, and the Shaping of Modern American Biopolitics. I took my postdoc to the University of Michigan, where I am working with Dr. Alexandra Minna Stern, a leading scholar in my field. Throughout my fellowship tenure, I have worked on articles, conducted archival research, and pursued other aspects of academic life. The majority of my efforts, however, have been devoted to writing several new chapters and revising existing chapters of my dissertation-turned-book project.

Interpreting the Genetic Revolution is a history of genetic counseling in the 20th-century United States. It is a story about genetic mediation, wherein the genetic counselor acts as a middle-woman between a person and their genes, their health risks and disease experiences, and their medical diagnosis and its real-life implications. My history revolves around two key arguments: first, genetic counseling has been (and continues to be) central to the evolution of medical genetics; and second, both genetic counseling and medical genetics have a much longer history, encompass a much wider range of practices, and have had a far greater social impact than is usually recognized. Unlike many histories of medical genetics, which begin around World War II, Interpreting the Genetic Revolution shifts our attention backwards through time to the early-20th century. Re-periodizing this history demonstrates how genetic counseling has driven both the scientific and social aspects of medical genetics, and how hereditarian theories of disease were important to researchers and everyday people long before DNA, modern molecular biology, and the Human Genome Project. Rather, genetic mediation and medical genetics have influenced Americans’ health and family experiences, and shaped the evolution of modern American biopolitics and healthcare priorities, since at least 1900. This book changes our perspective on how, when, where, and why genetics came to matter to modern Americans, and is necessary for understanding how American society has become “geneticized”: dominated by both the medical and cultural authority of genetics with a particular emphasis on our risk for disease.

I am extremely grateful to have received an AMS Postdoctoral Fellowship. This year-long funding opportunity has been invaluable to continuing my research, writing, and participation in other academic endeavors.

I conducted significant additional archival research during my SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship, and the AMS postdoc gave me the support and time necessary to incorporate new perspectives into my manuscript. Having an extra year of funding also allowed me to gain valuable experience working at the University of Michigan alongside a leading expert in the history of genetics and experience the academic life of another institution. Indeed, one of my major benefits of the AMS fellowship is that recipients can bring that award to the university most appropriate for their research and professionalization, whether in the United States or Canada. This is an extremely valuable resource for scholars navigating the gap between graduate school and permanent academic positions, and I encourage anyone studying health-related topics to apply.


About the author

Devon Stillwell

Devon is a Visiting Scholar in American Culture at the University of Michigan. She completed her Ph.D in History, and a Diploma in Gender Studies and Feminist Research, at McMaster University in 2013. From 2013 to 2015, Devon was a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at Johns Hopkins University in the History of Medicine. Her research centers on the overlapping histories of eugenics and genetics, bioethics,…

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