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Medical Progress in 1962

1962 in Science

Today, we take a look at the state of the medical arts in 1962. Some major breakthroughs occurred that year, as happened in many fields of science.

Structure of DNA molecule
Structure of DNA molecule (found on Pinterest, from unattributed website)

Let’s start with international recognition for one breakthrough: the award of the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology jointly to Francis Crick and James Watson of the United States, and Maurice Wilkins of the United Kingdom for their work in unraveling the mysteries of DNA. Today, everybody has seen the ladder-like double helix structure of DNA in pictures, but in 1962, no one knew what it looked like, and that meant no one know how to decipher its meaning. Mr. Wilkins had done some work in the early 1950s with X-rays that suggested a vaguely ladder shaped structure to the giant molecule. Over the next decade, Watson and Crick proposed the model we are now familiar with, which explained the properties of DNA. Knowing that, scientists since have been able to sequence the genes of DNA and split and recombine it. Crick's Nobel Prize medal has been kept in a safe deposit box since his widow passed away, but was sold at auction in 2013 for $2.27 million dollars.

In addition, another 1962 discovery was recognized with the award of a Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology 50 years later! Sir John Gurdon of the United Kingdom shared the 2012 prize with Shinya Yamanaka of Japan. Sir John Gurdon’s part in the work of stem cell research was for his basic research in 1962 that discovered that a single cell removed from a frog contained all the genetic information necessary to create a whole frog. Shinya Yamanaka took the science farther over 40 years later, when his research identified the specific four genes that made it possible to reverse mature stem cells into their embryonic state. While this is commonplace knowledge today, back then it was opposite of established opinion that a specialized cell only could recreate more of the same specialized cells. Today, gene splicing is being used for a variety of purposes, including research into the means to give individual patients the opportunity to grow replacement organs.

malformation of feet from effects of thalidomide
Congenital malformation of the feet from the effects of thalidomide. (Photo from Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health on Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

Other big medial news had more immediate consequences for 1962. This was the year that the drug thalidomide was recognized for causing serious birth defects. This drug first appeared during World War II, when Germany tested is as an antidote for nerve gas. It was found to also act as an anti-nausea drug and beginning in 1957 it was prescribed in Europe and Canada to expectant mothers suffering from morning sickness or insomnia. In 1960, an application to use thalidomide was submitted to the US Food and Drug Administration and assigned to a new employee, Dr. Frances Kelsey. She recognized a lack of testing data, even though the drug was already in common use elsewhere, so she rejected the application. Over the next two years, data came in first from Australia and then around the world, that linked thalidomide to birth defects that cause, among other problems, babies to be born with flipper-like arms and legs, or no arms and legs.

Dr. Kelsey was recognized in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy, who presented her with the President’s Award for Distinguised Service, for her role in saving US children from this fate. Congress went on to enact laws requiring safety tests on pregnant women before drug approval. Dr. Kelsey went on to become the first female head of the Food and Drug Administration. As of 2014, there are about 6,000 worldwide survivors of thalidomide poising from the late 1950s. Thalidomide has recently undergone a revival, as it has been discovered that it can treat multiple myeloma and other cancers, but its use on women even beyond child-bearing age and under very strict supervision is controversial.

Hedda Get Better doll
Hedda Get Better doll, with measles and thermometer (photo from an online auction)

Other worldwide medical news separately involved both measles and mosquitoes. Measles was still a real concern as a health problem for children in 1962. My whole family of 6 kids had various strains of measles in the years around 1962, though fortunately without any long-term consequence. But from 1958 to 1962, the US averaged 432 deaths associated with measles each year, so it could be a serious disease. Because virtually all children acquired measles at that time, the number of measles cases is estimated to have been 3.5 to 5 million per year. It was so common, there was even a toy doll, "Hedda Get Better", that caught painted on measles so that “mommy” could nurse the doll back to health. A measles vaccine was licensed in 1963, and the disease is virtually unknown in the country today, having only 634 reported cases in 2014.

Mosquitoes made the news because the world had grand plans to eradicate them! They were recognized as the transmission means for many diseases, including malaria and yellow fever, which debilitated large parts of the populations of tropical areas. The worldwide campaign took place under the guidance of the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO) and consisted mostly of spraying DDT, though it also urged installation of screens on buildings, draining of standing water that mosquitoes could use for breeding, and other measures. The campaign was initially very successful, but mosquitoes began to develop resistance to DDT and the world began to see other negative consequences from widespread spraying. One of the works that highlighted those negative consequences was Rachel Carson’s book "Silent Spring", published in 1962. A biologist, Carlson listed environmental impacts of the indiscriminate spraying of DDT in the US and questioned the logic of using large amounts of chemicals without fully understanding their effects.

WHO malaria eradication stamps, Vatican City and Indonesia, 1962
WHO malaria eradication stamps from Vatican City and Indonesia, 1962. 1962 (See more malaria eradication stamps at the Roadtrip-'62 ™ 1962 – The Year in Stamps page.)

By 1967, workers on the ground in Central and South America began seeing mosquito populations climbing again, and the WHO program wound down by about 1970. Needless to say, malaria did not come close to being eradicated. It is still estimated to cause about 225 million cases annually, resulting in 780,000 deaths worldwide, mostly children in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, there are new efforts being developed, including an experimental vaccine against malaria. Other efforts are being funded in part by billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, who believes the disease can be eradicated within the next 20 years. However, even if a vaccine is found that impacts malaria, mosquitoes transmit many other diseases, such as West Nile Disease and the more recent threat of the Zika virus.

Health insurance was also in the news, just like today. Maybe nothing ever changes because whenever Congress meddles with things they make it worse? In 1962, health insurance was not yet a universally anticipated benefit. In fact, it was largely purchased by individuals with their own money. It generally did not cover any routine medical services, and only just over half of all hospital care was covered. The idea of extending medical insurance coverage to all elderly persons had been floated as far back as the Roosevelt Administration in the 1930s, when it was initially considered as part of Social Security. It failed at that time, but came up for serious consideration again in 1962. President Kennedy pushed the bill, noting that, “The point of the matter is, that the American Medical Association (AMA) is doing very well in its efforts to stop this bill. And the doctors of New Jersey and of every other state may be opposed to it, but I know that not a single doctor, if this bill is passed, is going to refuse to treat any patient. You can go to any doctor you want.” Of course, today one of the problems is that many doctors have indeed refused to treat persons under Medicare coverage, pushing them off to some other doctor.


Actor Ronald Reagan, who had not yet become a politician, recorded a speech for the AMA in 1962, noting, “One of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people has been by way of medicine. It’s very easy to disguise a medical program as a humanitarian project.” He also stated, “And behind it will come other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country, until, one day…we will awake to find that we have socialism.” Canada had just implemented their form of Medicare, and doctors in the province of Saskatchewan staged a province-wide, 23-day general strike in protest of the system. Canada’s experience and the AMA opposition won the day, and Congress failed to pass a Medicare bill that year. It was not passed until 1965.


Ronald Reagan on behalf of the American Medical Association, speaking about Medicare in 1962.


For an unusual medical connection, Roadtrip-'62 ™ visited the Palmer Museum of Chiropractic History in Davenport, Iowa on our US-6 roadtrip.


All photos by the author and Copyright © 2017 - Milne Enterprises, Inc., except as noted.

All other content Copyright © 2017 - Milne Enterprises, Inc.

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