Medicine, War & State

A crucial element of the Golden Age of Medicine is the changing relationship between medicine and the state. This section of the site explores this changing relationship through a study of penicillin. First discovered in the late 1920s, penicillin was not produced in mass quantity until the early 1940s. In many ways penicillin is a war technology - without the pressing demands of World War II, and the willingness of the United States government to invest heavily in penicilling production technologies - penicillin might have remained a scientific and medical curiosity. The history of penicillin illustrates the complex way in which the government's relationship to medicine - and the public - changed during the final decades of the Golden Age. The regulation of penicillin did not occur only via the traditional mechanisms of legislation or regulatory agencies. It involved the war department, government-funded research labs, individual doctors, and the popular press.

Structure & Strategy

Our section on Medicine and the State is divided into three parts


In Part 1: Interpretation, you will learn about the process of interpreting evidence and producing historical interpretations.

Using a case study of chemotherapy - also an important Golden Age development of medical therapy and high-technology - we will explore the process of writing history. How things look depend on where you stand - an obvious but important historiographical concept.

Part 2: Perceptions - Penicillin and Public Life provides a montage of images that reflect the many ways in which the public encountered this new "miracle drug." These include sensational advertisements ("A thimblefull of miracle!"), science journalism, war department press releases, and informal networks of rumor and speculation. All of these served to raise public expectations, which in turn brought the public face to face with the harsh realities of penicillin rationing.


In Part 3: Penicillin, we present a comprehensive archive of documents related to penicillin production and rationing. The archive is organized around a series of locations: the federal bureacracies, the war department, the pharmaceutical industry, organized medicine, the public sphere. Each of these locations provides a different perspective on the changing relationship between medicine and the state. As you explore this section you will be confronted with a series of questions that will allow you to exercise the skills in historical interpretation that were developed in the previous sections.

Proceed to the first section...