By Bill Peckham
The geniuses at Google labs have used Optical Character Recognition to create a searchable data base of books:
It's called the Books Ngram Viewer, and it allows you to track the plot of words and phrases through time. The service draws on the absolutely massive Google Books corpus. Google estimates they've scanned and OCR'd more than 10 percent of all the books ever published, and they use (as Ed Yong pointed out in the comments) about a third of the total books in the tool. So, perhaps this isn't a perfect tool for research, but man is it fun to play with.
You can graph word usage over time and against other words.
This is the chart for "renal, cancer, kidney", from 1800 t0 2008:
Here is a closer look at nephrology related terms "renal,dialysis,hemodialysis,kidney" from 1950 to 2008:
There is a trend reversal in the mid '80s.
Considering the time it takes to write and publish books, I think means usage is a lagging indicator of interest. Thus, it was in 1983-4 that there was a collective shift in interest away from kidneys and the treatment of severe kidney disease. Why?
The seminal kidney-related event of this time period was the establishment of Medicare's composite rate payment for dialysis. Did the establishment of the composite rate signal that kidneys and the treatment of severe kidney disease were no longer interesting? Or was it that the treatment of kidney disease was now a business and as such the provision of dialysis was thought to be as interesting as the production of widgets?