Dorothy Porter, PhD

Phone: 415-476-8826
Fax: 415-476-9453

Research Interests

  • History of Parkinson’s Disease
  • Science and the rise of the modern state
  • History of transformations in rights and responsibilities of health citizenship
  • History of the social sciences in public health and medicine
  • History of somatic life and the experience of health, disease, healing and the body
  • New analytical methods for understanding and evaluating translational scientific collaboration in brain tumor research

Full Curriculum Vitae


In Progress

Creative Disability and the Shaking Palsy: Approaching a History of Parkinsons Disease Discourses and Narratives.

In a book on Musicophilia in 2007, the neurologist and eminent author, Oliver Sacks, proposed that musical rhythm may have a primal function in the brain which modern science is yet to fully explain. Sacks illustrated his arguments with accounts of patients with various types of frontal lobe lesions, such as Frontal Lobe Dementia, Alzheimers and some Parkinsons Disease who developed new aptitudes for musical creativity after the onset of their disease. This led Sacks and others to speculate that creative inhibition that was genetically coded into frontal lobe function was disengaged through some pathological lesions which let the music out!

In Sacks’s captivating narratives neurological changes and creativity are tales of transformation brought about by illness. In 2006 Tobi Zausner recounted similar patients’ narratives who experienced moments in their lives When Walls Become Doorways, such as the artist Henri Mattisse. Patient narratives do not have a prerogative, however, on defining and interpreting the relationship between illness and creativity. This is acutely the case for sufferers of neurological degeneration that brings about the assemblage of disorders that continue to be identified as Parkinsons Disease  -even though that terminology is itself challenged by the historical scientific and clinical tradition that created it.

This project investigates how and why two cultural interpretations of the relationship between creativity and Parkinsons Disease have developed and changed over time. It interrogates the historical determinants of a neuro-psycho-biological discourse with the power to affect human consciousness and somatic experience through pharmacological manipulation according to its own edicts. The project inquires into a contrasting set of representations in the narratives of patients with Parkinsons Disease of the transformative affect of creativity allowing them to experience different ways of becoming human. The project proposes that the two counter cultures of creativity and Parkinsons Disease have been framed by a pivotal historical moment in which two critically significant changes occurred in the epistemological status and causal explanation of Parkinsons Disease. Firstly, when the ontology of Parkinsons Disease as a single nosological entity became dispersed into a set of emergent interactions over a human life-course including pre-morbid risks and pre and post-diagnostic behavioral pathologies. Secondly, when neuroscientific investigation achieved this ontological dispersal through the explosion of the etiological paradigm of nigrastriatal dopamine deficiency. Finally the project interrogates contrasting representations of the relationship between being and becoming which characterize the two historical cultural interpretations of the relationship between Parkinsons Disease and creativity. In the neuo-psycho-biological discourse the replacement of static ontology with temporal emergence may not have eliminated reductionist reasoning about the relationship between creativity and disablement. The project explores a different epistemology of being and becoming within patient narratives of the transformative affect of creativity represented in the understanding and the experience of human variety.

Health Citizenship and Social Medicine in Post-modern and Globalized Worlds : From Behavioral Individualism to Environmental and Structural Etiology of Chronic Disease.

Social medicine in the Anglo-American context remained closely bound to the bio-psycho-socio-model of chronic disease that underpinned lifestyle, behavioral models of prevention after the Second World War. However, recent political developments regarding chronic disease prevention, specifically with respect to obesity, has been promoting a paradigmatic shift that re-links Anglo-American social medicine with its roots in structural analysis of disease etiology and with the continued structural analytical focus of Latin American Social Medicine.

This project has examined the way in which chronic disease in the Anglo-American context has figured prominently in the development of a behavioral etiological framework and in a behavioral conceptualization of prevention through individual lifestyle changes since the Second World War . This conceptual framework has, however, been challenged since the 1990s by radical health reformers who have focused on the role of corporate capitalism in the production of diseases that have been identified within a neo-liberal model of prevention as an individual responsibility. For a much longer period, the role of corporate industrial organizations in the production of chronic disease has been highlighted by historians of occupational diseases and by historians of smoking together with reformers’ and government agencies’ battles with the tobacco industry from the 1980s. More recently a radical health reform war on ‘Big Food’ has mimicked many of the strategic arguments and actions of the earlier wars on ‘Big Tobacco’ and ‘Big Pharma’. In their war against ‘Big Food’ radical health reformers have depended on the substitution of an environmental for a behavioral etiological explanation obesity. This substitution originated, ironically, in the work of a distinguished behavioral scientist, Dr Kelly Brownell, who identified the cause of obesity and overweight to be a toxic environment of addictive food production, which includes the mass marketing and advertising technics of the corporate food industry. Brownell and his co-founders of a health reform group, Center for Science in the Public Interest, have argued for government intervention to control and prevent obesity morbidity through taxation of high calorie low nutritious foods, the banning of junk food sales from schools and compulsory public disclosure of calorific and chemical components of nutritional products including restaurant menus.

The goal of the project is to examine how a new heuristic for understanding chronic diseases is emerging within radical health activism that integrates understanding the complex interaction of biology with the political, economic, social and cultural relations of the twenty first century. It seeks to understand how such an intellectual reconfiguration integrates the future evolution of social medicine in the Anglo-American with the Latin American holistic structural model of social medicine.


1.    Dorothy Porter, Health Citizenship: Essays on Social Medicine and Bio-medical Politics (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2012)  Sole Author

2.    Dorothy Porter, “Darwinian Archeology of Disease: Genomic Variants and the Eugenic Debate’,”, History of Science,  2012, 432-452  Sole Author

3.    Dorothy Porter, ‘The Social Contract of Health in the Twentieth and Twenty First Centuries’, in Susan Gross Solomon (University of Toronto), Patrick Zylberman (CERMES, Paris), Lion Murard (CERMES, Paris) (Editors), On Shifting Ground:” Health and Space in the Twentieth Century (in press –Rochester University Press, 2008), 37-49; 235-239  Sole Author

4.    Dorothy Porter, Health, Civilisation and the State: a History of Public Health from Antiquity to Modernity (London,Routledge, 1999; 2005)  Sole Author

Health, Civilization and The State Health Citizenship Dorthy Dolan, PhD 51O38dZSzdL

Last modified: March 4, 2016