Graphic Knowledge

Comics once brought the drama of medical discoveries to a younger audience.

Comics once brought the drama of medical discoveries to a younger audience.

Bert Hansen. Picturing Medical Progress from Pasteur to Polio: A History of Mass Media Images and Popular Attitudes in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009. 348 pp. $37.95.

On 2 December 1885 a stray dog bit four Newark, New Jersey, boys. The event was hardly uncommon. Fear of feral dogs and the possibility of rabies, an untreatable and horrifying disease, ran high. Local papers reported the incident, which was again not unusual. However, this particular occurrence blossomed into an international news story that captivated the public for months. Two powerful innovations of the late 19th century—mass media and scientific medicine—joined forces to create what Bert Hansen in Picturing Medical Progress from Pasteur to Polio calls the “first medical breakthrough.”

Hansen traces the history of mass-media images of medicine from the rabies-vaccine story of 1885 to the development of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine in the mid-1950s. He examines how stories, illustrations, cartoons, and photographs culled from magazines, newspapers, comic books, and movies reveal much about public attitudes to medicine and the popular appeal of medical news during this period. Hansen presents material previously unexplored by medical historians, while maintaining a clear narrative style accessible to the general reader.

Less than two months before the New Jersey incident Louis Pasteur announced the success of his rabies vaccine. The vaccine, produced from weakened infectious material extracted from rabbit spinal cords, prevented the development of rabies only if it was injected in the patient soon after the bite had occurred. The vaccine represented the first practical application of recent developments in germ theory and immunology, resulting in a cure for a human disease.

The boys sailed to France for the novel Pasteur treatment. A public plea for contributions to pay their expenses was made through the local paper. Newspapers in New York and other major cities picked up the story, as did the newly prominent and nationally distributed weekly magazines. Stiff competition for readership guaranteed that publishers would wring everything possible out of a story once the public’s curiosity was aroused. Improved printing techniques created a visually compelling new media, where full- and half-page illustrations and cartoons replaced columns of text. Soon, it seemed, the entire nation was following these boys and their families—from their stay in France and treatment by Pasteur to their trip home as returning “heroes” and subsequent tour of American cities. For the first time a large segment of the population read the same stories and saw the same images. Mass media created a “medical breakthrough.”

The Pasteur story served as a template for further medical-news breakthroughs, including Robert Koch’s announcement in 1890 of his tuberculin therapy (although it soon proved ineffective) and the development of an antitoxin cure for diphtheria in 1894. The coverage of these events established in the public mind a new respect for medicine and for the potential of laboratory science, creating a new type of hero in the form of the medical scientist.

By the 20th century the public’s enthusiasm for news about medical science and progress was firmly established. The new century saw these stories diffuse into books, radio, movies, and comic books. In 1926 the publication of Paul de Kruif’s best-selling book The Microbe Hunters gave the older medical heroes a singular boost. De Kruif’s lively and dramatic retelling of the stories of Pasteur, Koch, Paul Ehrlich, and others not only spawned more popular science writing but also launched a wave of popular medical biographies adapted for radio plays, theater, and movies.