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Medical History for the Masses: How American Comic Books Celebrated Heroes of Medicine in the 1940s

From: Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Volume 78, Number 1, Spring 2004
pp. 148-191 | 10.1353/bhm.2004.0018

Abstract

When comic books rose to mass popularity in the early 1940s, one segment of the industry specialized in "true adventures," with stories about real people from the past and the present—in contrast to competing books that offered fantasy, science fiction, superheroes, detectives and crime, funny people, or funny animals. This study examines the figures from both medical history and twentieth-century medicine who were portrayed as heroes and role models in these comic books: first, to call attention to this very popular, if unknown, genre of medical history, and second, to illustrate how medical history was used at that time to popularize scientific and medical ideas, to celebrate the achievements of medical research, to encourage medical science as a career choice, and to show medicine as a humane and noble enterprise. The study explains how these medical history stories were situated in American popular culture more generally, and how the graphic power of comic books successfully conveyed both values and information while also telling a good story. Attention to this colorful genre of popular medical history enriches our picture of the mid-twentieth-century public's enthusiasm for medical progress.