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Real Life Comics, Advocates for Medicine and Public Health

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2018 - Winter


In their Golden Age in the 1940s, comic books saluted medicine and public health ... and paved the way for improvements in human welfare.

About two years ago the Medical Historical Library began adding a new category to its collection of scholarly tomes and ancient treatises—comic books. Along with the works of Osler and Vesalius, library shelves now house issues of Real Life Comics that tell stories like “Edward Jenner, Plague Fighter,” “The Conquest of Yellow Fever,” and “The Story of Medicine.”

The comics are now source material for an undergraduate course on medicine and the media, and are available to researchers exploring a question for which there is little historical documentation.

“How do we know what ordinary people and patients thought about medicine, how they envisioned it, and what their attitudes toward it were?” said Bert Hansen, Ph.D., professor emeritus of the history of medicine and science at Baruch College in New York, and the donor of the comic books. “Published imagery in popular journals and magazines would be an important source of evidence.”

Hansen began collecting comic books in the 1980s after shifting his re-search from 14th-century medicine. Advances in medicine—stories of medical progress and breakthroughs like Walter Reed’s vanquishing of yellow fever in Cuba and Edward Jenner’s discovery of vaccination to prevent smallpox—found their way into the popular imagination. By the 1920s, medical stories had become fodder for novels like Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith. In the 1930s and 1940s Hollywood joined in with movies like Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, which dramatized a cure for syphilis. And in their Golden Age in the 1940s, comic books rhapsodized about the likes of Louis Pasteur, Alexander Fleming, Howard Florey, and Clara Barton.

“The narrative of my book, Picturing Medical Progress from Pasteur to Polio,” said Hansen, “is the story of how we get the idea of medical progress and medical breakthroughs.”

To be sure, the comic books took some license in focusing on the eureka moments rather than long, fruitless days in the lab. And, added John Warner, Ph.D., chair and Avalon Professor of the History of Medicine, the stories often portrayed an “underdog,” a scientist with an unconventional idea bucking the establishment, and “this notion of a breakthrough moment.”

Even as medical and scientific accuracy took a back seat to a good yarn, Warner said, this popularization helped make medical progress possible by lionizing heroes of medicine, research, and public health. Their stories helped lay the groundwork for clinical trials of the Salk polio vaccine in the 1950s. “[The trials] very much depended on public health education and the expectation of medical progress and medical citizenship,” Warner said.

About seven years ago, Warner and Gretchen Berland, M.D., associate professor of medicine, launched a course in which Yale College students would explore how the public has viewed medicine over the years—Media and Medicine in Modern America. Along with lectures and sessions with teaching assistants in history, law, medicine, and public health, the course includes a visit to the historical library. There, Melissa Grafe, Ph.D., the John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History, and Susan Wheeler, curator of prints and drawings and historical medical posters, lead the students through displays of popular health imagery that include comics, magazines, and posters. Among the questions posed are how media portrayals shape perceptions of the medical profession as well as perceptions of health and illness within the medical community.

The course is one of the reasons that Hansen donated his collection to the School of Medicine. He knew Warner from professional conferences, but he also knew that the School of Medicine has a vigorous program in the history of medicine and faculty who are interested in media.

“I felt that the comics would be preserved and actually used,” Hansen said. “That made Yale a special place.”