Without a doubt the 20th century will be remembered for the birth of cinema and television. They played an important role in shaping our lives and cultures due to their growing popularity and now easy accessibility forever instilling in us a passion for screen entertainment.
Over the years countless stories told by celluloid images, projected onto the big screen and television, has led audiences to build perceptions on different fields e.g.: music, sport, commerce, politics and science.
The Medical Profession is no exception, from the 1930s till now doctors have been portrayed in films and TV series, very often influencing the public’s perception, inspiring a lot of young students to become doctors and most importantly having a tremendous effect on doctor – patient relationships.
From the humble Dr Watson (Sherlock Holmes) to Star Trek’s Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy, from William Hurt in The Doctor to TV’s hit series’ ER, C.S.I and House, doctors can be found in any film and television programme.
Maybe its time that these films and television programmes are added to the medical school curriculum, providing a comprehensive sociological reflection on the way medics are portrayed in the Media and their place in society?
Doctors and medical students may be pleased to know that according to Glenn Flores’ research paper Doctors in the Movies, where he reviewed 131 doctor films excluding television, from nine countries, spanning eight decades, the medical specialisation favoured by doctors is surgery (33%), psychiatry, (26%) family or general practice (18%) whilst paediatrics accounts for only 2%.
Despite Glenn Flores’ extensive research on the medical specialisation favoured by television producers for doctor’s onscreen, one should hope that doctors and medical students are intelligent enough to decipher the fact that producers give prominence to surgery only because it is more dramatic and glamorous onscreen e.g. ER and Nip/Tuck. The fact is, any person going into health care whether they want to become a surgeon, a general practitioner , a specialist, nurse or midwife, they all hold equal importance in the real medical profession and rightly so.
Over the years cinematic portrayals of doctors have been mixed; a positive and negative presentation of medics onscreen has appeared in every decade. For every fictitious Mad doctor (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) or scientist (Dr Frankenstein) the 1930’s gave us very positive insights in the medical profession, with the classic memorable Arrowsmith (1932) and The Citadel (1938).
Arrowsmith is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel written by American author Sinclair Lewis. Nominated for four Academy Awards and directed by the influential John Ford (The Searchers), the film is set during the 1920s depression era. It chronicles the life of Dr. Martin Arrowsmith (Ronald Colman) as he makes his way through medical school, marries and considers the lure of high-paying industrial research taking a post within a research institute. The young medical researcher’s job takes him to a Caribbean island, where he must prevent a plague while prioritising who has the right to take the vaccine. This film was considered avant garde for the time in which it was released, as it explores a doctor’s internal conflicts between choosing to help patients or career status rewards.
Despite Arrowsmith being a story on a lone doctor’s pursuit against a death plague, it is a social commentary on the state and prospects of medicine in the United States in the 1920s depression era.
Based on the Novel by Scottish author Archibald Joseph Cronin and directed by King Vidor The Citadel takes place in England where a young, idealistic Dr. Manson (Robert Donat) becomes disillusioned after practicing in a Welsh mining town. Manson is then influenced by a friend to make a lucrative practice from rich hypochondriacs, where he finally realises what the truth of being a doctor really is.
Show me the Money!!!
Both Arrowsmith and The Citadel portrayals of doctor’s onscreen are a fine example of humanity and compassion that bring out the best in doctors. One may beg to differ, according to Glenn Flores’ research paper Doctors in the Movies: “Materialism and a love of money have pervaded cinematic portrayals of doctors dating back to the 1920s and continue to be prominent in recent movies.”
This maybe shocking to many, but Flores substantiates his claim of cinematic doctor’s materialistic approaches, by citing various film anecdotes, that funnily enough all give common reference to Harley Street in London, which is synonymous with private medical care in the United Kingdom. For example in Doctor at Sea (1956), Dr Simon Sparrow played by Dirk Bogarde states: “A Roll Royce is the ambition of almost every newly qualified doctor and preferably a Harley Street Address to go with it” In Carry on Again Doctor (1969), Dr Jim Nookey (Kenneth Williams) confides to a colleague: “Specialise, that’s what I’d like to do! The whole Harley Street bit with bags of lovely filthy rich women patients.”
Another example is in Doctor at Large (1957), where the doctor in charge of a Harley Street practice gives advice to a fellow colleague: “You know, it’s a chastening thought, but good clothes are more important to a GP than a good stethoscope.”
Flores in his debate goes to the point to even mention cinematic American slang anecdotes taken from Not as a Stranger (1955), where 1950’s American Medical Students discuss their career options:
“Personally, I’m for surgery. I just got a look at Dr Dietrich’s car. You know what he drives? A Bentley. $17,000 bucks.”
“That guy doesn’t take out a splinter for less than £1,000.”
“I’ll still take ear, nose, and throat. The common cold is still the doctor’s best friend.”
“Call it a virus. You make more dough that way.”
“Look, if you kiddies are all through, your old man here will really wise you up. It’s not what you practice, its where.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve done a little research on this problem. The average doctor’s income is 11 Gs. In the Southwest, west and more….”
“Pebble Beach, Colorado Springs, Beverly Hills, that’s where the rich are cracking up fast.”