A favorite story of mine concerns a child riding on her father's shoulders while out on a walk, when they encounter a friend. “My, how you've grown,” says the friend. “Not all of this is me,” responds the little girl. Writing about one's “most important scientific contribution” is like this story, in the sense that all science is collaborative. Consequently, many other people are implicated in these comments, and others may remember things quite differently. Nonetheless, that said, I believe my most important scientific contribution has been nurturing and giving structure to new scientific fields, specifically three now-active areas of research.
The first field is health psychology. In 1975, Judith Rodin (then a Yale professor) asked me if I would write a paper for the West Coast Cancer Foundation on what psychology has to teach us about breast cancer and its management. I told her it would be a pretty short paper, as there was not much literature on the topic. She urged me to take it on anyway, and so Smadar Levin (a graduate student at Harvard who was also a breast cancer patient) and I wrote the paper, which ultimately was nearly 100 pages long.
That experience whetted my appetite for bringing health and psychology together. I began by writing a textbook to try to shape the field, borrowing heavily from what were called, at the time, medical sociology and medical anthropology, as well as related fields. It took a while to get the book published, because there was no obvious market for it. Eventually, a very enthusiastic editor at Random House, Judith Rothman, accepted it, calling it a chicken–egg book: The book will help create the field; the field will adopt the book. I am grateful to her for her encouragement, for her insight, and, consequently, for putting my children through college.
The field began to come together through the separate efforts of several groups, some of which were unknown to each other. The time was right. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute was beginning to fund behavioral medicine grants. A group at UCSF, under the leadership of George Stone, published the first collection of readings in the field.