The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine



A thoughtful new look at the entwined histories of genetic medicine and eugenics, with probing discussion of the moral risks of seeking human perfection

Almost daily we hear news stories, advertisements, and scientific reports promising that genetic medicine will make us live longer, enable doctors to identify and treat diseases before they harm us, and individualize our medical care. But surprisingly, a century ago eugenicists were making the same promises. This book traces the history of the promises of medical genetics and of the medical dimension of eugenics. While mindful of the benefits of genetic medicine, the book also considers social and ethical issues that cast troublesome shadows over these fields.

Keeping his focus on America, Nathaniel Comfort introduces the community of scientists, physicians, and public health workers who have contributed to the development of medical genetics from the nineteenth century to today. He argues that medical genetics is closely related to eugenics, and indeed that the two cannot be fully understood separately. He also carefully examines how the desire to relieve suffering and to improve ourselves genetically, though noble, may be subverted. History makes clear that as patients and consumers we must take ownership of genetic medicine, using it intelligently, knowledgeably, and skeptically.

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publish Date
January 14, 2014
5.71 X 0.7 X 8.98 inches | 0.95 pounds

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About the Author

Nathaniel Comfort is associate professor, Department of the History of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, and a participant in The Oral History of Human Genetics project.


"Comfort explains how eugenics became part of medicine, and how medical and human genetics therefore derive in large part from eugenics. The great strength of this book is to work this through agnostically and calmly."--Alison Bashford, The University of Sydney --Alison Bashford (03/13/2012)
"Comfort's compelling narrative transforms our understanding of the history of human genetics in the United States. This book sheds penetrating light on how the simultaneously meritorious and fraught goals of biological improvement and of the alleviation of physical suffering have driven the development of genetic science."--Alexandra Stern, University of Michigan--Alexandra Stern (03/16/2012)
"This is a rich and important book, laced with lively vignettes and provocative judgments, Comfort recounts with an unblinking eye the evolution of medical genetics from its origins in eugenics to the era of the genome. An absorbing and informative work."--Daniel J. Kevles, Stanley Woodward Professor of History, Yale University, and author of "In the Name of Eugenics"

--Daniel J. Kevles (05/01/2012)