Research & Books

I have a long-standing interest in the history of medicine. My research focuses on the diet-health nexus, particularly as it pertains to chronic disease in the United States between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries.

Most recently, I have co-edited with Australian historian Alison Bashford a special issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine (Winter 2012) devoted to the evolving relationship between climate and human health. My essay on Ancel Keys and the International High Altitude Expedition of 1935 features in this issue.

History of Alcoholism and Drug Use

My first book, Alcoholism in America from Reconstruction to Prohibition (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), was a biography of a disease. It explored the history of physicians’ and reformers’ efforts to medicalize the social problem of habitual drunkenness.

This work was innovative in its analysis of both the intellectual evolution of drunkenness as a disease, and its use of patient records, court documents, and popular media to argue that the medicalization of drunkenness was not a top-down process led by physicians (as sociologists have suggested). Instead, I suggested that medicalization was a negotiated process in which pastors, politicians, and inebriates and their families frequently advanced a medical agenda for distinctly non-medical purposes.

With historian Caroline Jean Acker, I also co-edited and contributed to a collection of essays titled Altering American Consciousness: The History of Alcohol and Drug Use in the United States, 1800-2000 (University of Massachusetts Press, 2004).

This work was among the first to consider the malleable nature of our classification systems for drugs as “medicinal,” “recreational,” “licit,” and “illicit.” The essays in the volume also highlighted the utility of analyzing individual drug histories from each of these categories in a comparative fashion.

Alcoholism in America
Alcoholism in America

Alcoholism in America from Reconstruction to Prohibition is a biography of a disease, published in 2005 (paperback in 2007) by Johns Hopkins University Press. This project, like my study of Ancel Keys, grew out of my long-standing interest in the intersecting histories of diet and chronic disease. Find on Amazon

Altering American Consciousness
Altering American Consciousness: The History of Alcohol and Drug Use in the United States from 1800-2000

In 2004, I co-edited with Caroline Jean Acker a collection of essays entitled Altering American Consciousness: The History of Alcohol and Drug Use in the United States, 1800-2000 (University of Massachusetts Press). Find on Amazon


The Life and Science of Ancel Keys

I am currently completing a biography of the physiologist and epidemiologist Ancel Keys (1904-2004). I like to say that he is the most important biomedical scientist that you have never heard of. I think this is true, though journalists such as Gary Taubes and historians such as Todd Tucker are beginning to change this.

Keys’ long life—nearly 101 years—was filled with scientific adventures in physiology, nutrition, and public health. He traveled all over the globe to pursue his research interests, doing science in the Chilean Andes, Italy, Greece, Scandinavia, the Soviet Union, Japan, and South Africa.

Whether measuring our ability to adapt to great heights or the health effects of starvation, Keys was on a quest to improve the ability of individuals to adapt to their surroundings and live long and healthy lives. Here’s a brief description of the project that I wrote for a recent fellowship proposal:

Ancel Keys returns to the Summit of Cerro Aucanquilcha

“Few people have exerted more influence on American eating habits than Keys, who helped usher in the era of highly processed, debatably palatable, and preservative-rich food through his development of the K Ration for the U.S. Army. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Keys wrote internationally bestselling cookbooks that introduced the U.S. and the world to the Mediterranean diet and heart healthy eating habits. These books were based on both his laboratory studies of dietary fat, blood cholesterol, and heart disease, and his epidemiological explorations of dietary pattern and heart health in seven countries (the U.S., Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, Finland, Yugoslavia, and Japan). Nicknamed “Mr. Cholesterol” by the popular press, Keys appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1961 as the man most likely to find an explanation for America’s #1 source of mortality (then and now), heart disease. The public, however, knows little about this important American scientist, health advocate, and author.

Recently scholars, journalists, and food activists have begun to discuss the ways in which Keys helped shape America’s eating habits. They typically portray him, however, in narrow, near conspiratorial terms, as a rogue scientist determined to “cherry-pick” data and bully other scientists to advance his own pet theory about the connections between dietary fat, blood cholesterol, and heart disease. A range of contemporary authors have painted Keys as the person most responsible for America’s obesity epidemic, a public health crisis that they believe was occasioned by his stalwart advocacy of a plant-centered diet, low in meat and dairy sources of fat. The food industry responded to Keys’ low-fat message by creating sweet, refined carbohydrate foods that have expanded our waistlines.

Yet if individuals have pointed to Keys’ important influence on the American diet, they fail to address the breadth and depth of Keys’ other contributions to oceanography, high-altitude physiology, U.S. science policy, the rebuilding of Europe’s nutritional status after WW II, Cold War diplomacy, and the popularization of nutrition and heart health across the second half of the 20th century. When his life is examined in full, a different picture emerges. Keys was no data manipulator; he was an internationally respected scientist—a polymath who built bridges between scientific disciplines, between science and society, and between Eastern bloc and Western nations through his physiological and epidemiological research. Keys’ life story is an exciting one and important to our understanding the course of science and diet across “the American century.”

Articles and Book Chapters

Tracy and Bashford BHM Winter 2012 cover

  • “Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the History of American Science, Medicine, and Technology, Hugh Slotten, ed., New York: Oxford U. Press (forthcoming, 2014).
  • “History of Medicine vs. Organic Chemistry: Lessons Beyond the Lab,” Oklahoma Humanities—Magazine of the Oklahoma Humanities Council, September 2013.
  • “Something New Under the Sun? The Mediterranean Diet and Cardiovascular Health,” New England Journal of Medicine, 4 April 2013, 368: 1274-1276.
  • “The Physiology of Extremes: Ancel Keys and the International High Altitude Expedition of 1935,”  “Modern Airs, Waters, and Places,” special issue, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Winter 2012, 627-660.
  • “Introduction” with co-editor Alison Bashford, “Modern Airs, Waters, and Places” special issue, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Winter 2012, 495-514.
  • “The Scope and Variety of Combined Baccalaureate-MD Programs in the United States,” Eaglen, RH, Tracy, SW et al., Academic Medicine, November 2012, 1600-1608.
  • “Alcohol: History of Drinking in the United States,” Pamela Korsmeyer and Henry Kranzler, eds., Encyclopedia of Drugs and Addictive Behavior, Vol. 1, Third Edition, Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Cengage, 2008, pp. 96-101.
  • “Prohibition of Alcohol,” Encyclopedia of Drugs and Addictive Behavior, Pamela Korsmeyer and Henry Kranzler, eds., Vol. 3, Third Edition, Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Cengage, 2008, pp. 303-307.
  • “Medicalizing Alcoholism 100 Years Ago,” Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 15, (2), March/April 2007.”Alcoholism,” in Social Issues: An Encyclopedia of Controversies, History, and Debates, M.E. Sharpe, 2006.
  • “Why Addiction is a Disease,” Christian Networks Journal, (addiction issue) Summer 2005.
  • “Days of Recurring Desire: Inebriety and Alcoholism in Patient Narratives, 1900-1920,” The Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era Newsletter, Fall 2005, Vol. XV No.2, 1, 7-9.
  • “Buliding a Boozatorium: State Medical Reform for Iowa’s Inebriates,” in Sarah W. Tracy and Caroline Jean Acker, eds., Altering American Consciousness: The History of Alcohol and Drug Use in the United States, 1800-2000, Amherst and Boston: U. of Massachusetts Press, 2004.
  • “Charles Dederich,” American National Biography, Supplement One, Oxford U. Press, 2003.
  • “Contesting Habitual Drunkenness: State Medical Reform for Iowa’s Inebriates, 1902-1920,” Annals of Iowa, Summer 2002, 241-85.
  • Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse” in The Oxford Companion to United States History, Paul Boyer, ed., Oxford and New York: Oxford U. Press, 2000.
  • “Thomas Crothers,” “Albert Day,” “George Draper,” “Joseph Parrish,” and “William Sheldon,” biographical essays in American National Biography, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • “An Evolving Science of Man: The Transformation and Demise of American Constitutional Medicine, 1920-1950,” in Greater than the Parts: Holism in Biomedicine, 1920-1950, Christopher Lawrence and George Weisz, editors, Oxford and New York: Oxford    University Press, 1998.
  • “George Draper and American Constitutional Medicine, 1916-1946: Re-inventing the Sick Man,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 66, (1992), 53-89.