Science, Selfhood, and Suffering: Explorations in the History of Pain

Thursday, Apr 20, 2017 - 12:00pm to 2:00pm

20 April 2017 (Thursday), 12:00 p.m.

Steve Beitler

Steve Beitler History of Health Sciences Program, Department of Anthropology, History and Social Medicine, UCSF

Our first program of the Spring quarter, on Thursday, 20 April 2017 at 12:00 pm, will be a presentation by Steve Beitler (History of Health Sciences Program, Department of Anthropology, History and Social Medicine, UCSF) on "Science, Selfhood, and Suffering: Explorations in the History of Pain":

My talk draws on the histories of how pain has been measured and treated in order to explore changes in clinicians' understandings and patients' experiences of pain in America.  

After 1945, the clinical perception and status of pain began to shift slowly but decisively.  Pain was refashioned from a simple, well-mapped, stimulus-and-response nervous-system event into an experience defined by complexity and subjectivity.  Pain became a disease in itself.

This shift reflected how chronic pain had become a significant clinical challenge in the post-war period.  Pain had long been an important symptom or accompaniment of many conditions and procedures.  After World War II it became as well a distinct condition characterized by individual diversity; an emphasis on multimodal and complementary treatments; and growth in knowledge of the mechanisms of pain alongside the persistence of clinical quandaries, such as phantom-limb pain and the observed range of individual responses to comparable therapies.  

Changes in the medical stature of pain had begun much earlier, but it was not until the middle of the 20th century that a new paradigm was articulated, organized, and promoted successfully.  One form that this new model took was the "professionalization" of pain, which included the growth of organizations dedicated to the study and treatment of pain as well as the delineation of pain medicine as a recognized sub-specialty within American medicine.

Within this framework, Science, Selfhood, and Suffering describes my research on how an insurgent model of pain was tied to changes in prevailing ideas and practices of personal identity, autonomy, and selfhood in America after 1945.  A model of pain as decisively personal meshed well with a consumer-led, growth-oriented economy that often equated personal freedom with consumer choice.  My talk integrates research on the McGill Pain Questionnaire, the most widely used pain measurement tool in history; pain and American football; and the work of American designer and inventor Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958) to examine how changes in ideas of selfhood and identity both fueled and reflected new patterns of pain management and drug use in post-war America.

Biographical Note:

Steve Beitler received his doctorate in the History of Health Sciences from the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) in 2016.  He has a Master's in History from San Francisco State and a B.A. in Sociology from Northwestern.  His work focuses on the history of how pain has been understood, treated, experienced, and represented, and his focus is on the United States after 1945. This Fall [2017] he will be teaching in the UCSF program that he completed last Fall [2016].

Lunch salads will be available for attendees who confirm before noon on Monday, April 17th, when we place the catering order. (Please be advised that we require reservations because of university policy; we must submit a list of confirmed attendees when placing our catering order.)

Seating is limited; reservations are REQUIRED. Please RSVP to reserve if you plan on attending. There may not be seating available for drop-ins on the day of the forum.

Reservations may be made by contacting History & Special Collections for the Sciences (voice: 310.825.6940; email:

This UCLA History of Medicine and Medical Humanities Research Forum (this is the 39th meeting of the series) is made possible by the History & Social Studies of Medicine Program, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA; and by History & Special Collections for the Sciences, UCLA Library Special Collections.