- Picturing Medical Progress from Pasteur to Polio: A History of Mass Media Images and Popular Attitudes in America
This is a book about the long golden age of American medicine, the period from the 1880s through the 1950s that marked the ascendancy of public optimism about medical progress and esteem for medical researchers. Bert Hansen rightly draws attention to the coemergence in the late nineteenth century of both a new [End Page 151] version of laboratory-based, scientific medicine and new business models and technologies that undergirded mass-circulation newspapers and national magazines. With a keen eye for the visual, he sets out to explore widely the image of medical advancement disseminated through the mass media—newspapers and magazines, advertisements and health education pamphlets, radio and motion pictures, comic books and photojournalism. Starting with Louis Pasteur's 1885 announcement of a vaccine for rabies, he traces the trajectory of popular fascination with medical breakthroughs through Jonas Salk's 1955 vaccine against polio, the zenith of popular admiration and optimism, ending his story just before media enthusiasm began to be tarnished in the 1960s.
In sketching the big picture, Hansen executes a series of historically deft and historiographically elegant strokes. A suggestive chapter focused on the sensation that Pasteur's rabies cure sparked in the United States, for example, argues that this media event catalyzed a durable transformation in public expectation, fostering both popular anticipation of medical discoveries and media confidence that medical breakthroughs would be news. A cluster of three chapters explores how the mass media turned to medical history during the decades from the 1920s through the 1940s (from popular science writing, to heroic researchers in radio dramas, to Hollywood biopics, to research adventures in children's comic books): popular medical history helped to keep medical discovery in the public eye and to sustain optimism about future progress—all the while attracting paying readers and viewers. A particularly compelling chapter recounts the portrait of medicine that the weekly magazine Life promoted through photo essays, an image of medical benevolence and extraordinary promise that was remarkably resilient to failure and setback.
This is the best synthetic treatment we have of the role the mass media played in shaping and promoting the high esteem enjoyed by the American medical profession across the first half of the twentieth century. Historians have long insisted that the image of science—the verbal and visual language of science—was a key ingredient in uplifting the stature of the profession. Yet we still know frustratingly little about precisely how that image was translated into cultural authority. Hansen has given us both a richly detailed account of the images widely circulated to the public and a convincing analysis of the aggregate image those pictures of medicine fostered.
What might leave readers a little uneasy is the assertion that the images placed on public view provide access to the thoughts and feelings of ordinary Americans. Equally, the author perhaps overreaches in extrapolating from the consistency in the imagery of medical progress he finds in the mass media to the conclusion that the public actually shared a uniform image of medical research, researchers, and the implications of medical advancement for their own lives. Such concerns, though, reflect the kind of welcome provocation this ambitious, sweeping study opens up for further historical investigation into the multiple meanings that pictures of medical progress held for the heterogeneous publics that made up American society. [End Page 152]
Picturing Medical Progress is a bold and important study—accessible, consequential, and thoroughly engrossing. Rutgers University Press has done a stellar job in reproducing the 130 visual images, and Hansen has provided the starting point for anyone who wants to understand historically the relationship between medicine and the media in modern America.