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June 4th: Nicolas Rasmussen, "Measuring Fatness and its Hazards: Precision Adiposometry vs. a 1950s Public Health Campaign against Obesity"

Jun 04, 2018
from 12:10 PM to 02:00 PM

STS Conference Room (1246 SSH Bldg)

"Measuring Fatness and its Hazards: Precision Adiposometry vs. a 1950s Public Health Campaign against Obesity"

Professor Nicolas Rasmussen

History & Philosophy of Science, University of New South Wales

Please RSVP HERE for the event, as lunch will be served. 

Abstract: Systems of measurement and the units implicated in them can be used not only for consensus and collaboration, but as weapons against alternative systems and the facts of nature built upon them. Here I discuss one such offensive use of metrology intended to sow doubt around epidemiological findings about the dangers of obesity, and to block a public health campaign to counter these dangers, in the 1950s United States. I retrace the program of physiologist Ancel Keys to replace the measure of obesity established by the insurance industry through half a century of extensive statistical research, body weight relative to height, with an alternate measure purportedly more reflective of body fat content and heart disease mortality risk. His elaborate program of precision adiposometry based on calliper measures of subcutaneous fat never was shown superior to relative weight for its predictive power, as he often claimed it would, but nevertheless served to undermine the medical community’s confidence in high body weight as a heart disease risk factor, helped advance the status of Key’s favored risk factor (serum cholesterol), and ultimately led to the establishment of Body Mass Index (BMI) as the standard measure of obesity. This shift in anthropometric measurement systems and units played an important role in decline of public health concern about obesity between the 1960s and 1990s.

Nicolas Rasmussen is Professor of History & Philosophy of Science at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney Australia. Nic is a historian of medicine and the life sciences, with higher degrees in History & Philosophy of Science (MPhil, Cambridge, 1987), Biological Sciences (PhD, Stanford, 1992), and Public Health (MPH, Sydney University Medical School, 2007). He is the author of Gene Jockeys: Life Science and the Rise of Biotech Enterprise (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine (New York University Press, 2008), and Picture Control:  The Electron Microscope and the Transformation of Biology in America, 1940-1960 (Stanford University Press, 1997).