In his 1971 State of the Union address, president Richard Nixon promised to kick off what would soon come to be known as the War on Cancer, asking congress for a $100 million appropriation to launch a campaign for finding a cure. “The time has come in America when the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease,” he said. “Let us make a total national commitment to achieve this goal.”
Soon after that statement, with the signing of the National Cancer Act of 1971, Nixon effectively created a public movement against the disease. Although the word “war” wasn’t used in the legislation, cancer effectively became public enemy #1—across the nation, there was a fervent belief that scientists were on the cusp of understanding it. What’s more, Nixon’s declaration and legislation resulted in a renewed focus on finding a cure for cancer, which meant that the resources and funding dedicated to studying the disease were expanded.
Nixon’s campaign never conquered the disease—cancer remains the second-leading cause of death in the US, as it was 40 years ago—but this (somewhat perceived) lack of progress hasn’t stopped other causes from emulating it. The next target: Aging and death itself.