Control of Life: Pictures From a Medical Revolution, 1965


The pursuit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Or rather, the result of that pursuit can be dangerous. Even deadly. But where do we draw the line between legitimate scientific inquiry — with its occasionally lethal byproducts or aftereffects — and plain old irresponsible egotism? At what point does an intellectual quest prove itself to be nothing more than (with a nod to the ancient Greeks) the ancient sin of hubris?

The reason there’s no consensus, even among scientists and researchers, on where that invisible line exists is due, of course, not only to the quite slippery nature of the question, but to the ever-shifting nature of the line itself. Consider the British author and futurist Sir Arthur Clarke’s famous “Third Law”: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. If Sir Arthur is on to something with that poetic assertion — and, for our purposes, we’ll argue that he certainly is — how can any culture expect agreement among all of its people, much less between between different generations on what truly constitutes legitimate, responsible science and what constitutes the pursuit of knowledge run amok?

In September 1965, LIFE magazine presented its millions of readers with a lengthy, thoughtful feature that it characterized as the first in an ambitious four-part series “on the profound and astonishing biological revolution.” Titled Control of Life, the series sought to create a framework within which LIFE could grapple with some of the most exciting and troubling recent (at the time) advances in science and medicine. The magazine described the intent of the four-part series in these words:

Of all the fantastic breakthroughs that modern science is making, none will touch man more closely, more wondrously — or more fearfully — than those now being made on the far-out frontiers of medicine and biology. As a result of research already well-advanced, man may one day be able to prolong his life for decades by replacing his failing organs as he now replaces the failing parts of his car. He may hope to foreordain the intellect and the physical characteristics of his children and of all the generations to follow. He may, though was strange to contemplate, yet being seriously pursued, be able to achieve a kind of immortality.

In the four-part series beginning on the following pages, LIFE shows some of the audacious experiments which can give man an awesome power: nothing less than the control of life.

Today, as previously unthinkable medical advances — from prenatal whole-gene sequencing to non-invasive cancer screening to at-home HIV tests — become more routine (if no less mind-blowing), and as ethical questions swirl around entire fields of research, presents photos from that first installment in the Control of Life series, as well as page spreads from the issue itself.

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