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This essay sheds light on present-day pharmaceutical advertisements by looking back to an important early chapter in pharmaceutical company–sponsored promotion: the Great Moments in Medicine and Great Moments in Pharmacy series of commercial paintings produced by Parke, Davis and Company between 1948 and 1964. Beginning in the early 1950s, Parke-Davis delivered reproductions of the Great Moments series to physicians and pharmacies throughout the United States and Canada and funded monthly pull-out facsimiles in key national magazines. The images also appeared in calendars, popular magazines, and "educational" brochures. By the mid-1960s, articles in both the popular and the medical press lauded the Great Moments images for "changing the face of the American doctor's office," while describing the painter, Robert Thom, as the "Norman Rockwell" of medicine.
Our analysis uses source material including popular articles about the Great Moments series, existing scholarship, previously unexamined artist's notes, and, ultimately, the images themselves, to explain why these seemingly kitschy depictions attained such widespread acclaim. We show how Great Moments tapped into a 1950s medical climate when doctors were considered powerfully independent practitioners, pharmaceutical companies begged doctors' good graces, and HMOs and health plans were nowhere to be seen. The article concludes by suggesting that the images offer important lessons for thinking about the historically embedded beliefs painted into the many pharmaceutical advertisements that confront present-day doctors, patients, and other consumers.