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.

Hansen further describes how in the 1940s a new literary genre had an enormous impact in spreading these stories to a younger generation. True Comics debuted in 1941 and was soon followed by others, including Real Life Comics andReal Heroes. Under the banner “TRUTH is stranger and a thousand times more thrilling than FICTION,” the stories of Walter Reed, Robert Koch, Alexander Fleming, and dozens of others fighting the “war against disease” ran alongside stories of generals and world leaders fighting the war in Europe. The comic-book stories were tightly compressed and used an economy of drawing and text to drive the action forward. The triumph of the hero and his scientific method was assured. These inexpensive and widely distributed books proved immensely popular—especially among children and GIs.

Hansen concludes with a look at LIFE’s coverage of medical stories up to the mid-1950s. Through its creative format and the singular artistry of its photography, LIFE played an important role in teaching and popularizing science. Henry R. Luce, who launched the magazine in 1936, wanted his readers “to see and take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed.” Pleasure, amazement, and instruction aptly describe the LIFE approach to presenting science. The image of medicine projected at mid-century through LIFE’s photo essays was unfailingly optimistic.

A collector himself, Hansen clearly has a love for the graphic image, and many of the 108 illustrations and 22 color plates in the book come from the author’s own collection. The chapters on late-19th-century magazine illustrations, 1940s comic books, and LIFE are the strongest and receive the most in-depth treatment. As befitting a book about graphic representation, the illustrations are beautifully reproduced, many at a full or nearly full page.

Pasteur’s rabies vaccine marks a clear beginning to the era, but the ending is much less distinct. In the mid-1950s the world greeted Jonas Salk as a modern-day medical hero, much in the vein of Pasteur. His polio vaccine marked another triumph of medical science over a dreaded disease. Since then public attitudes have shifted away from wholesale optimism. Our esteem is now tempered by an awareness of the limits of medical science, its unexpected consequences and potential for misuse, and the fallibility of the men, women, and institutions that pursue it. This study of the mass media’s role in disseminating medical information and shaping public attitudes is both highly relevant and enjoyable. It invites reflection on the importance of balancing optimism and skepticism and the value of “heroes” in promoting belief in the power of individual achievement.

Diane Wendt is an associate curator in the Division of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution.