Picturing Medical Progress from Pasteur to Polio: A History of Mass Media Images and Popular Attitudes in America

Picturing Medical Progress from Pasteur to Polio: A History of Mass Media Images and Popular Attitudes in America

Picturing Medical Progress from Pasteur to Polio: A History of Mass Media Images and Popular Attitudes in America

Picturing Medical Progress from Pasteur to Polio: A History of Mass Media Images and Popular Attitudes in America

Synopsis

Today, pharmaceutical companies, HMOs, insurance carriers, and the health care system in general may often puzzle and frustrate the general public- and even physicians and researchers. By contrast, from the 1880s through the 1950s Americans enthusiastically embraced medicine and its practitioners. Picturing Medical Progress from Pasteur to Polio offers a refreshing portrait of an era when the public excitedly anticipated medical progress and research breakthroughs.

This unique study with 130 archival illustrations drawn from newspaper sketches, caricatures, comic books, Hollywood films, and LIFE magazine photography analyzes the relationship between mass media images and popular attitudes. Bert Hansen considers the impact these representations had on public attitudes and shows how media portrayal and popular support for medical research grew together and reinforced each other.

Excerpt

For Americans of the 1950s, the single most important newspaper and magazine story was the successful field trial of Jonas Salk’s new vaccine to prevent infantile paralysis. Fear of polio had been pervasive in the lives of ordinary people, heightened by the uncertainty of when, how, and where it would strike. Although polio cases were measured in the thousands, not millions, infantile paralysis was every parent’s fear. With the vaccine breakthrough, feelings of hope and relief overwhelmed the more than twenty million U.S. households with children.

The publicity surrounding this triumph was unprecedented in magnitude, as was the enormous number of people involved in the clinical trial and the rapid mass distribution of the new vaccine. the press and the public of the 1950s had been somewhat prepared for such medical advances, with penicillin and “blue baby” surgery in the 1940s, but no one could have foreseen the tidal wave of enthusiasm and appreciation for the new polio shots. Typical of many such front pages in the evening papers on April 12, 1955, was this two-line banner headline above the masthead of the Chicago Daily News: “Victory against Polio! Salk’s Vaccine Works.” Secondary headlines explained, “Salk’s Vaccine Does the Job against Polio: 80 to 90 Per Cent Effective, Medical Jury Tells the World.” Use of the new shots began immediately. Less than twenty-four hours after the announcement, children in Los Angeles were receiving the vaccine. a photograph of the first child ran the following morning in the Los Angeles Times, along with an article reporting that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had decided to share vaccine data even with “red countries.”

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