Medicine's Motion Pictures

By Tebbe-Grossman, Jennifer | Film & History, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Medicine's Motion Pictures


Tebbe-Grossman, Jennifer, Film & History


Leslie J. Reagan, Nancy Tomes, and Paula A. Treichler, editors.

Medicine's Moving Pictures: Medicine, Health, and Bodies in American Film and Television.

University of Rochester Press, 2007.

343 pages; $85.00.

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Editors Leslie J. Reagan, Nancy Tomes, and Paula A. Treichler bring attention to the "rich cultural and historical archive" of medicine's moving pictures as a "genre" in twelve essays written by scholars whose backgrounds are primarily in the history of science or medicine, medical humanities, and communication. The collection is a first-of-its-kind in the way they look at "health, medicine and bodies" across a variety of electronic media, including newsreels, feature films, television dramas, and comedies, and instructional films or videos (p. 2).

The editors believe that medicine's motion pictures have been overlooked by scholars, especially those working in the history of medicine. They point to the large numbers of media productions and the long history of medicine's moving pictures. Author Martin Pernick, for instance points out that over 1300 films on doctors, health, and medicine were produced in the twenty years after the opening of the first movie theatre in 1905.

The book opens with a well-organized introduction explaining what is meant by the term, medicine's moving pictures. In addition to arguing that medicine's moving pictures are a distinct genre, the editors also pursue themes connected to "the blurring of education and entertainment, the diversity of audience response, and the search for 'realistic' drama."

Two essays make up Part One of the edited collection. Martin Pernick looks at "health films" in the silent era that were made by groups including private individual public health crusaders, private health organizations and foundations, public health departments, and Hollywood studios. Local organizations or government agencies sponsored free showings and schools commanded captive audiences or often the public paid to see these films. Pernick looks at films that deal with such topics as tuberculosis, eugenics, and venereal disease. He examines four questions: causation and blame for disease, the role of the medical profession, how health and disease "look", and what topics are fit for "public viewing." Pernick concludes that health films "not only illustrated but helped shape the histories of both medicine and motion pictures."

In the second essay, Nancy Tomes looks at the "celebrification" of disease in films. By this she means "the conscious recruitment and deployment of famous people to promote public awareness of specific disease." She focuses on two films in detail, The Pride of the Yankees, (1942), that introduced the public to the then unknown disease of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) that became commonly know as Lou Gehrig's Disease, and Rhapsody in Blue, a 1945 film about George Gershwin and his death from a cancerous brain tumor. Tomes discusses the "disease narrative" in both the celebrity films above and in press coverage. She concludes that "for all the intent to inspire and reassure, celebrity patient sagas inevitably create unrealistic expectations" for how can ordinary people possibly live up to the "heroic narratives" presented on the screen.

In Part Two of the collection, essays look at syphilis and the U.S. Public Health Service; an HIV/AIDS storyline on the soap opera General Hospital; a British melodrama, Mandy, about deafness and maternal responsibility in post-WW II Britain; and the separate goals of two 1950s breast self-examination films, one for women patients and one for physicians. …

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