Picturing Medical Progress

Popular culture books can be a mixed bag. They usually have some of the sexiest titles and layouts in an academic bookstore. Their payoff, however, does not always measure up. Many get very theoretical and others lose focus. Like the exotic fusion food from the 1980s – kiwis, langoustines and sesame seeds, anyone? – satisfaction is elusive. But when a popular culture book is effective, it opens up horizons and makes for provocative connections, puzzling comparisons and the widening of horizons.

Picturing Medical Progress from Pasteur to Polio: A History of Mass Media Images and Popular Attitudes in America, by Bert Hansen (Rutgers, 2009) works. It is a fascinating study and whether one categorizes it as history, popular culture, history of medicine, media studies or something completely different, it engages you and makes you think. Hansen’s study charts the changing images of the medial profession from the dark days of the middle 1800s through the triumphs of Salk and public health in the 1950s, hinting at the cynical shifts that take place later. Using the popular press, journalism, comic books, movies and television, Hansen explores key issues and events that shaped public understanding of medicine. Who knew?

While the book is organized chronologically, giving it a certain historical cast, many of the sections could stand alone. Similarly, some common themes – vivisection, for example – could alternately drive the narrative.

Critical high points include Pasteur and rabies, the comic books of the 1940s and 1950s, the power of Life magazine, and the press around Salk. Other important events and issues are examined, but book’s skeleton is around those issues. Hansen seems to be more interested in them. His writing, which is strong throughout, takes on a slightly different tenor.

The story of Pasteur and his cure for rabies is well-known. Using rabbits to generate a life-saving serum, Louis Pasteur was able to halt a highly visible, highly dramatic disease in its tracks. The press loved this – and especially found the 1885-6 trip of several Newark, New Jersey youngsters to France to receive the treatment – unbelievably exciting Rabies did not kill many people. When rabies did strike, though, it often took children. Mad dogs were a scourge in earlier times. Pasteur’s heroic interdiction gave him, and a scientific method, tremendous capital in the popular press.

The comic books of the 1940s, Hansen states, paved the way for a positive understanding of medical science. Emphasizing that these cultural productions were upbeat, didactic and widely read, Hansen unearths a fascinating collection of popular cultural artifacts that have received little attention. We may know about Batman and Superman. Who knew, though, about the “famine fighter Dr. Joseph Goldberger” or that Walter Reed was featured in the inaugural edition of True Comics? Hansen’s enthusiasm is clear in this section, as his affirmation of the influence and courage of Life magazine in the 1950s and 1960s. Life, a picture magazine with an unusual commitment to science and medicine, regularly featured articles on medical science. Its articles highlighted critical issues, such as cancer, fetal development, and vivisection. The publication made a unique contribution to the popularization of science, Hansen affirms.

And what does all this spell out? That for much of the past 150 years the popular understanding of medical sciences has been shaped and framed by key events at key periods.

David Potash

One Comment

  1. I enjoyed reading your review of Bert Hansen’s Picturing Medical Progress. You are so right. It is a popular culture book that works –a serious study, well written and engaging. With brilliant illustrations, too!

Comments are closed.