Reducing harm or shrinking the likelihood of accidental death are remarkably contentions projects—in areas from sex education, to pandemic management, to drug use. Nancy Campbell’s important new book, OD: Naloxone and the Politics of Overdose (MIT Press, 2020) explores how a therapy that can stop an accidental drug overdose, called Naloxone, emerged in the American mainstream in the early years of the new millennium—despite existing in some form for nearly a century. What are now called “opioid antagonists” were used, not to save lives, but deployed by the carceral state to police drug users in the early twentieth century; sequestered within bioscience laboratories to build molecular theories of how the brain worked at midcentury; approved by the FDA in 1971 for the treatment of overdose only by physicians; and illicitly administered and widely shared in the 1980s and 1990s among drug-user-led activist organizations and communities, who created their own troves of training protocols, peer-education networks, and experiential evidence of its effectiveness. In the twenty-first century, Naloxone appeared on public policy agendas around harm reduction and arrived legally in the hands of the people best situated to intervene when an overdose was underway—but only in some US states and some countries.
Campbell tunes readers’ ears to the politics of evidence, the health effects of stigma, and the racism of false medical claims as she listens, amid a century of contention, to the quietness of “undone science.” As evidence, this intrepid book uses visual culture, vernacular documents, oral histories, and (expertly explained) scientific publications. It connects American histories at federal and local levels with the UK and especially Scotland. And it relates medical communities and activist networks without imposing false divides or drawing caricatures of either. The book builds on Campbell’s four previous books on the history of addiction, gendering knowledge, and social theory from the position of Science and Technology Studies.
The interview was a collaborative project among participants in the Vanderbilt University course, American Medicine & the World. For information about using NBN interviews as part of pedagogical practice, please email Laura Stark or see the essay “Can New Media Save the Book?” in Contexts (2015).
Laura Stark is Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health, and Society, and Associate Editor of the journal History & Theory.
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