Department of Medicine and Department of Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
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First published April 1, 2008 - More info
The annual ASCI/AAP/AFCR meetings in Atlantic City were the most important and exciting events in my early career as a clinical investigator. I started out a few years after the close of World War II, when what is now called translational medical research was expanding rapidly, and important developments in virtually every field were being reported in rapid succession. It was a heady time to be entering academic medicine, and each year all clinical researchers would meet in Atlantic City to present their latest and best work and to meet on the Boardwalk or in local hotels with their colleagues from all over the country.
The scientific excitement and the camaraderie of those meetings were unmatched. Atlantic City was where you measured your scientific success (or failure) against that of others in the field. It was where you discussed your research with your friends and your competitors and where academic careers were shaped — and much gossiped about. It was a time when you could personally know just about everyone in your field and when it was possible to gain a comprehensive overview of the current state of research in the whole field simply by attending the specialty sessions of this one meeting. Everyone who was anyone working in any area of clinical research simply had to be there.
The general sessions afforded an opportunity to hear about the latest and most important work in other fields and to see the leaders of academic medicine in action. For young people starting their careers in research, nothing matched the spectacle that unfolded each spring in Atlantic City. It was a meeting that not only defined the current state of clinical investigation, but also told you whether and how your own work was contributing to progress in the field. It was also, in those innocent days, a meeting largely free of commercial influences; virtually none of the thousands of researchers in attendance had any personal financial interest in the fruits of their work.
Of course, those meetings inevitably had to change. With the explosive growth of medical research in so many new directions and the entrance of so many thousands of new investigators, it simply wasn’t possible to hold it all together in one meeting. Innumerable new scientific subspecialties, new societies, and specialized meetings have now supplanted the old meetings in Atlantic City, and any semblance of unity and coherence in medical research has disappeared. Dispersion and subspecialization are now the rule in clinical investigation, as in all of science. I suppose that is the price we must pay for progress, but I can’t help feeling nostalgic for the ASCI/AAP/AFCR big show. Those annual pilgrimages to Mecca on the New Jersey shore held us all together in a way that has not since been duplicated. And they were a powerful reminder that clinical investigation is critical for the understanding, treatment, and prevention of human disease, therefore requiring the involvement of physicians.