Etymology Usage

How industrial is an industry?

Q: For me, “industry” means heavy manufacturing—autos, steel—big, noisy machines and lots of sparks. But the term is now used for any type of business: insurance, medicine, even nursing. I think this destroys a useful distinction. How say you?

A: We had a question over the summer from someone who was working on a public-health paper and wondered about the term “medical industry.”

Somehow our answer fell through the cracks and never made it onto the blog. This gives us a chance to make up for that omission.

Here’s how we answered the original question, more or less. We think this will answer your question as well. 

The term “industry” is often used in ways that are not … well … industrial.

In fact, when it entered English in the 15th century, the word meant skill, cleverness, or diligence in the performance of some craft or task.

In its entry for “industry,” the OED says the noun is sometimes preceded by “a personal name or the like” to refer to scholarly or diligent work on a particular subject, as well as the practice of a profitable occupation.

Examples given are “Pindar industry” (1965), “Shakespeare industry” (1966), “Joyce industry” (1969), and “abortion industry” (1969).

The specific phrase “medical industry” doesn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary.

But a search of the New York Times archive shows that the phrase first appeared in the newspaper in the 1920s.

As far as we can tell, however, it wasn’t used in a general way—to include medical practitioners—for another 40 years. And it certainly had no pejorative meaning in early usage, as it sometimes does now.

On April 17, 1923, which was during the Prohibition era, the Times quoted an official of the American Drug Manufacturers Association as saying alcohol is “absolutely essential in the manufacture of medicine.”

“The legitimate industry, including the medical industry, which uses alcohol and depends upon it, are very much alarmed at the attitude of the Federal Prohibition Commission,” the official added.

By “medical industry,” did he mean physicians and hospitals, or drug makers? Probably the latter

The next citation is from a May 17, 1945, article about conditions in Germany after the surrender: “It is hoped that enough medical supplies can be provided from Germany’s large medical industry to take care of the people’s needs, the general added.”

Here again, the reference was to supplies rather than medical treatment, and by “medical industry” the writer probably meant the drug industry.

The next three entries (from 1946, 1948, and 1950) refer to the Soviet Union, where the Ministry of the Medical Industry, which became a separate department in the 1960s, oversaw the production of medicines and instruments.

In 1964, the Times ran a story about a man whose work was “designing electronic equipment for the medical industry.” Again, this could be a reference to the equipment manufacturers rather than to physicians.

The first Times citation we can find that uses “medical industry” to include medical treatment appeared on April 4, 1965.

In a letter to the editor of the Book Review section, the author William Michelfelder wrote, “I spent nearly 10 years writing about the medical industry before writing ‘Cheaper to Die.’ ”

Later the phrase became more common—and more critical, perhaps helped along by books (like Michelfelder’s) criticizing the medical industry.

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