Calculable People? Standardising Assessment Guidelines for Alzheimer’s Disease in 1980s Britain.

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This article shows how funding research on Alzheimer’s Disease became a priority for the British Medical Research Council (MRC) in the late-1970s and 1980s, thanks to work that isolated new pathological and biochemical markers and showed it affected a significant proportion of the elderly population. In contrast to histories that focus on the emergence of new and competing theories of disease causation in this period, I argue that concerns over the use of different assessment methods ensured the MRC’s immediate priority was standardising the ways in which researchers identified and recorded symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease in potential research subjects. I detail how the rationale behind the development of standard assessment guidelines was less about arriving at a firm diagnosis and more about facilitating research by generating
data that could be easily compared across the disciplines and sites that constitute modern biomedicine. Drawing on criticism of specific tests in the MRC’s guidelines, which some psychiatrists argued were ‘middle class biased’, I also show that debates over standardisation did not simply reflect concerns specific to the fields or areas of research that the MRC sought to govern. Questions about the validity of standard assessment guidelines for Alzheimer’s Disease embodied broader concerns about education and social class, which ensured that distinguishing normal from pathological in old age remained a contested and historically contingent process.
Original languageEnglish
JournalMedical History
Early online date13 Sept 2017
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Medical Research Coucil
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Standardisation
  • Education
  • Social Class


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