Lost in Translation? Cortisone and the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis in Britain, 1950-1960

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Cortisone, initially known as ‘compound E’ was the medical sensation of the late 1940s and early 1950s. As early as April 1949, only a week after Philip Hench and colleagues first described the potential of ‘compound E’ at a Mayo Clinic seminar, the New York Times reported the drug’s promise as a ‘modern miracle’ in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Given its high profile, it is unsurprising that historians of medicine have been attracted to study the innovation of cortisone. It arrived at the end of a decade of ‘therapeutic revolutions’, kicked off by penicillin transforming the treatment of bacterial infections and ending with hopes of a revolution in the treatment of non-infectious, chronic inflammatory diseases. Despite these studies of cortisone’s introduction, few historians have taken the story forward and considered how cortisone was adopted and adapted into clinical practice. This article tells the longer of how the drug and its derivatives were taken from research laboratories and integrated into clinical practice; what has in recent decades become known as translational medicine (TM). In exploring cortisone’s first decade in Britain, we focus specifically on its role in the treatment of RA. Our approach is always to consider cortisone’s use in the context of other treatments available to clinicians, and at local and national institutional settings. We do not discuss the many other therapeutic uses of cortisone, which ranged for topical applications for skin diseases to the management of cancers, especially childhood leukaemia, nor do we discuss its close analogue ACTH—AdenoCorticoTropic Hormone. We think there are lessons in our study for TM policies today.
Original languageEnglish
JournalHistory and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 7 Nov 2019


  • Cortisone
  • Translational Medicine (TM)
  • Rheumatoid arhtritis
  • Drugs industry
  • NSIADs


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