The War Against Dementia

Are We Battle Weary Yet?

Heather Patricia Lane; SueAnne McLachlan; Jennifer Philip


Age Ageing. 2013;42(3):281-283. 

In This Article

Historical Background

The use of military metaphor to describe illness dates back to at least the seventeenth century when John Donne described his illness as 'a canon shot' and 'a siege',[13] and the physician Thomas Sydenham noted that '[a] murderous array of disease has to be fought against, and the battle is not a battle for the sluggard'.[14]

During the late nineteenth century infectious diseases were increasingly referred to in military terminology. Otis noted, '[w]hen … the disease [tuberculosis] is limited to an apex, in a man of fairly good personal and family history, the chances are that he may fight a good winning battle'.[15] Worcester describing the physician's duties wrote that 'he must lead the fight against all contagion and infection'.[16]

By the early twentieth century military metaphors were being used in reference to cancer. Downing discussed 'fighting cancer, leprosy, and tuberculosis',[17] whereas Cabot wrote of 'a good fighting chance' of reducing cancer mortality.[18] In 1936 the Women's Field Army was established by the American Cancer Society to engage in 'trench warfare with a vengeance against a ruthless killer',[19] by raising money and educating the public about breast cancer.

Following World War II, military metaphors were promoted in cancer care. Lerner suggests that this was due to the increased profile of surgeons returning from war, many of whom became involved in treating cancer.[20] Military metaphors were used by Mary Lasker of the American Society for the Control of Cancer in political lobbying for the advancement of cancer research.[21] The military metaphor was further promoted by President Nixon's 'War on Cancer', with signing of the 1971 National Cancer Act. The use of military metaphors in the medical literature has continued in recent decades, along with discussion of their usefulness.[22,23,24,25]