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Who's afraid of cortisone? Symptomatic treatment in modern biomedicine

Cortisol. Credit: LHcheM [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Cortisol. Credit: LHcheM [CC BY-SA 3.0]

This talk considers the role of symptomatic treatment in the age of modern biomedicine using the case of cortisone. Cortisone has come to stand for ‘symptomatic treatment’ in a way that few other drugs have. Initially greeted as a curative and specific wonder drug, cortisone soon drew criticism from physicians accusing their cortisone-prescribing colleagues of neglecting their diagnostic duties by simply “curtailing the signs and symptoms of disease.” In this context, clinicians and researchers developed the notion of “steroid phobia” to highlight cortisone skepticism, first among physicians, and then increasingly also among patients.  

The talk traces the historical emergence of steroid phobia as a research metric to measure and explain “noncompliance” (nonadherence) among patients using topical corticosteroids. It argues that the growing focus on steroid phobia increasingly sidelined other concerns about cortisone, including an underlying unease felt by many patients towards its perceived symptomatic mechanism. By showing the evolution of steroid phobia research and the development of steroid phobia measurement devices, the talk highlights the emergence of particular biomedical cognitive modalities within which physicians and researchers increasingly struggled to contend with patients’ expectations of treatment. 


Lisa Haushofer is a Senior Research Associate at the Chair for History of Medicine and the Center for Medical Humanities at the University of Zurich. She holds a PhD from Harvard University, an MD from Witten-Herdecke University, and an MA from University College London. Her research examines notions of ‘cure’ in the age of biomedicine. Her book Wonder Foods: The Science and Commerce of Nutrition is forthcoming with California University Press. 


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