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  • Medical Visions: Producing the Patient through Film, Television, and Imaging Technologies by Kirsten Ostherr
  • Ludmilla Jordanova (bio)
Kirsten Ostherr. Medical Visions: Producing the Patient through Film, Television, and Imaging Technologies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. x + 307 pp. Paperback, $27.95.

The visual dimensions of medicine are now receiving sustained attention from scholars in many fields. At the same time, we recognize just what a complex notion “medicine” is, referring as it does to a wide range of phenomena, many of which escape the control of formally accredited professionals and are best thought of in terms of popular culture. In Medical Visions: Producing the Patient through Film, Television, and Imaging Technologies, Kirsten Ostherr focuses on moving images produced in the United States from the early twentieth century to the present day. The types of images she considers are diverse and range from sober education films to television documentaries and fictionalized accounts of medical life. She also considers briefly at the end of the book more recent forms, including “reality” television and such virtual worlds as Second Life. The core of Medical Visions consists of six case studies, arranged in chronological order, that include close readings of specific films and programs. Ostherr is alert to the texts’ ideological dimensions as well as their aesthetic properties, often showing the close relationships between visual techniques associated with cinema and those deployed in medical contexts. The volume is rich in detail about the conditions under which works were made and received; especially telling are the ways in which medical organizations attempted to, and often succeeded in, controlling content and audiences.

The historical and medical contexts of the modern United States are, naturally enough, highly specific. Forms of professionalization, health insurance, and advertising are obvious areas where that specificity is crucial for the subject matter Ostherr considers. So too are race relations, and some of the most compelling parts of the book concern the filmic representation of black patients and doctors and their relationships with white protagonists. Ostherr also emphasizes the role of the Cold War, and especially the desire during that era to show the value and innovativeness of American science in the face of Russian success in, for example, space exploration. She touches on the export of films and how they could be adapted for international markets.

Medical Visions is an interdisciplinary work, like so much current writing on medicine. Ostherr pays attention to the role of music and soundtracks more generally, to styles of film-making and editing alongside more contextual issues such as funding, relationships with Hollywood, and contemporary commentary, as in the popular TV Guide. [End Page 224] She is thus able to show how changing forms of narrative, especially with respect to happy endings, are connected with broader forms of social and cultural change. It is striking how fast some of these conventions have changed, and Ostherr’s focus on specific examples enables us to see the forces at work in some detail. One theme that emerges particularly strongly is the intricate relationship between fictional and non-fictional accounts, and between different techniques for producing imagery. The consideration of the role of animation in factual films is compelling. It is not surprising, then, that Ostherr returns repeatedly to the often tense and blurred dynamics between education and entertainment. The tensions between these two modes of address reveal concerns about which audiences are watching, in what contexts, and how they are responding to what they see. She shows the range of ways medical institutions and their members continually seek to shape audience responses, often in connection with financial ends (seeking donations to hospital funds, for example).

The themes I have mentioned are of broad general importance for understanding modern medicine. It might be worth considering ways they can be further developed. Two broad areas come to mind: first, ways of contextualizing the developments Ostherr traces; and second, the potential for moving into a more explicitly comparative mode. One context that seems important is that of religious behavior and belief, given heated debates about, for example, abortion and stem cell research, which might well have an impact upon the public representation of medicine and on the ways medical...