National Cancer Institute Act (1937)

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) Act was signed into law by President Roosevelt on August 5, 1937.  It was the result of legislative work by Senator Homer Bone (D-WA), Representative Warren Magnuson (D-WA), and Representative Maury Maverick (D-TX) [1].  The law was created to facilitate more cancer research and to establish the NCI within the National Institute of Health, located in Bethesda, Maryland.  In 1940, while dedicating several new buildings at the Institute, President Roosevelt said:

“We cannot be a strong nation unless we are a healthy nation… Among the buildings of the National Institute of Health to be dedicated here today stands the National Cancer Institute… The work of this new Institute is well under way. It is promoting and stimulating cancer research throughout the nation; it is bringing to the people of the nation a message of hope because many forms of the disease are not only curable but even preventable… In dedicating this Institute, I dedicate it to the underlying philosophy of public health, to the conservation of life” [2].

The NCI started with two appropriations: $750,000 “for the erection and equipment of a suitable and adequate building” and $700,000 for normal operations (about $12.7 and $11.8 million in 2016 dollars) [3].  It wasn’t long before the NCI was making substantial contributions.  In 1941, the U.S. Surgeon General reported that the NCI had made several grants to universities and medical institutions for cancer research, totaling $61,380 (about $1 million in 2016 dollars).  He also highlighted the NCI’s own research, which included a study on the carcinogenic properties of certain types of air dust, the role of genetics in breast cancer, and the measurement of radiation in different areas of the United States to examine correlation with skin cancer rates [4].

The NCI has grown steadily since the New Deal, as has the importance of cancer as a source of suffering and mortality among Americans, as the threat of deadly contagious diseases has waned. Today, the NCI employs 4,000 people and has a $5 billion budget [5].  The funds support NCI’s own operations and research, as well as a grants program.  In 2017, for example, an NCI press release spotlighted a $9 million grant awarded for, “The largest study to date of African-American cancer survivors in the United States… The Detroit Research on Cancer Survivors (ROCS) study, which will include 5,560 cancer survivors, will support a broad research agenda looking at the major factors affecting cancer progression, recurrence, mortality, and quality of life among African-American cancer survivors” (the press release notes that “African Americans continue to experience disproportionately higher cancer incidence rates… for most cancer types.”) [6].

The NCI Act of 1937 was one of many ways that New Deal policymakers recognized the importance of the science and treatment of cancer.  For example, Works Progress Administration (WPA) artists created at least twelve public information posters about cancer – promoting early detection, highlighting therapies, and warning against unproven and dangerous treatments [7]; WPA professional workers assisted universities and medical centers with various cancer studies [8]; student workers in the National Youth Administration (NYA) performed important cancer research [9]; and hospital construction funded by the Public Works Administration (PWA) vastly increased the number of hospital beds across the country, thus creating more care and treatment options for Americans suffering with cancer and other types of illnesses [10].

Sources: (1) See, e.g., “Legislative History Timeline” (entries for 1937), National Cancer Institute, accessed March 2, 2017; “Dedicate Institute For Study Of Cancer,” New York Times, June 25, 1939; “Magnuson, Warren G. (1905-1989),”, accessed March 2, 2017; and “Maverick, Fontaine Maury,” Texas State Historical Association, accessed March 2, 2017.  (2) “Address at the Dedication of the National Institute of Health, Bethesda, Maryland,” October 31, 1940, The American Presidency Project, University of California Santa Barbara, accessed March 2, 2017.  (3) “National Cancer Institute Act,” Public No. 244, 50 Stat. 561-562, August 5, 1937.  (4) Annual Report of the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service of the United States, for the Fiscal Year 1940, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1941, pp. 89-90.  (5) See “NCI Overview” and “NCI Budget and Appropriations,” National Cancer Institute, both accessed March 3, 2017.  (6) “NCI launches study of African-American cancer survivors,” National Cancer Institute, Press Release, February 27, 2017, accessed March 3, 2017.  (7) “Posters: WPA Posters,” (use search word “cancer”), Library of Congress, accessed March 2, 2017.  (8) See, e.g., “Cancer in Hartford [Connecticut], a Statistical Analysis, 1920-1936” (in conjunction with the Hartford Board of Health), Works Progress Administration, Index of Research Projects, Volume III, 1939, p. 175, accessed March 2, 2017.  (9) For example, “NYA students at the Medical School of the University of Wisconsin have done unusual work in cancer research. Through centrifugation these young medical students have advanced the knowledge available on cancer by determining the substances in normal tissue which regulate cell growth, either inhibiting or stimulating such growth.” Federal Security Agency, War Manpower Commission, Final Report of the National Youth Administration, Fiscal Years 1936-1943, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1944, p. 61.  (10) Public Works Administration, America Builds: The Record of PWA, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939, pp. 141-153.