By Kathy High (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) and Michael Sappol, PhD (National Library of Medicine)
It’s 1950 and a fine upstanding teenager named Rodney is stricken with the deadly tuberculosis bacterium (Mycobacterium tuberculosis). But rest assured—and rest he will, in a tuberculosis hospital—science is on top of the disease.
The early 1950s was a time of high anxiety in American culture. The United States and its allies had won the world war, but after the Soviets exploded their atomic bomb in 1949, fears of nuclear war began to proliferate, along with some undefinable unease about the consequences of scientific progress. Yet the 1950s was also a time of optimism, when many believed that you could overcome anything by adopting a positive attitude and taking timely action.
And so this cartoon is both happy and haunted—by the threat of illness and attack. Stark posters of a dark profiled man and woman, with the legend “Have a Chest X-Ray,” loom strategically in background storefront windows as Rodney happily strolls down the sidewalks of his town.
Because TB is an invader within. Like the great science fiction films of the 1950s—such as The Man from Planet X, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers—Rodney plays off cultural dread and suspicion of the Other.
That Other could be people of a different social class or ethnicity. At one point Rodney (who lives in an all-American small town) says to his doctor that he thought only people who live in the slums get TB. The doctor counters, almost poignantly, “Germs don’t know one person from another.” Tuberculosis, it turns out, is a modern, democratic disease. Even white middle-class people get it, and it’s nobody’s fault. With the defeat of Nazism and its racial ideology, and in the aftermath of the genocide that killed six million Jews, there was a changed climate of opinion in America: discrimination is wrong. Disease is the enemy and people are not diseases.
Rodney‘s modernist cartoon animation renderings of cars, people, lungs, bacterial invasion, diagnostic technology, and treatment methods capture a moment in post-World- War-II American life and medicine when everything felt modern. The main vector of modernity is the X-ray. (The National Tuberculosis Association commissioned Rodney for a campaign to encourage mass and individual X-ray screening.) A few years later the emphasis would shift to antibiotics, but Rodney takes place on the doorstep of the antibiotic revolution: drug treatment of tuberculosis had already been invented but only became practicable in 1952, when isoniazid, the first oral mycobactericidal drug, was created. Rodney makes no mention of antibiotics—and, surprisingly, only one fleeting mention of the tuberculin test.
There is another vector of modernity: the motion picture itself, made in a contemporary idiom that powerfully communicates to the public. And the messages are: See your doctor regularly (and get regular chest X-rays). If he says you have TB (which may not be evident), listen to your doctor and go to a “modern tuberculosis hospital,” where you will rest and recover and be isolated until you no longer pose a danger to your family and community. If that doesn’t do the trick, the fatherly doctor explains, surgery to collapse a lobe of the lung will give it even more rest. Happily that turns out to be unnecessary in Rodney’s case.
Stills from Rodney reprinted with permission, © 2011 American Lung Association.
|Kathy High is an interdisciplinary artist working with technology, art and biology. She collaborates with scientists and artists, and considers living systems, empathy, animal sentience, and the social, political and ethical dilemmas of biotechnology and surrounding industries. She has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her art works have been shown at the Museum of Modern Art, (NYC), Science Gallery, (Dublin), NGBK, (Berlin), MASS MoCA (North Adams). High is Professor in Arts and has a lab at the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy NY.|
|Michael Sappol lives in Stockholm, Sweden and is a visiting researcher at the University of Uppsala. For many years he was a historian, exhibition curator and scholar-in-residence in the History of Medicine Division at NLM. Sappol’s work focuses on the history of anatomy, death, and the visual culture of medicine and science in film, illustration and exhibition. He is the author of A Traffic of Dead Bodies (2002) and Dream Anatomy (2006), editor of A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Age of Empire (2010) and Hidden Treasure (2012), and emeritus curator of Medical Movies [on the Web]. His new book is Body Modern: Fritz Kahn, Scientific Illustration and the Homonucular Subject (University of Minnesota Press, 2017).|
Katherine Ott, Fevered Lives: Tuberculosis in American Culture since 1870 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).
Sheila Rothman, Living in the Shadow of Death: Tuberculosis and the Social Experience of Illness in American History(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).
Richard, Shryock, National Tuberculosis Association 1904–1954 (New York: National Tuberculosis Association, 1957)
Michael E. Teller, The Tuberculosis Movement: A Public Health Campaign in the Progressive Era (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988)
Nancy Tomes, “Tuberculosis Religion,” The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women and the Microbe in American Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 113–34.
Paula A. Treichler & Leslie J. Reagan, eds., Medicines Moving Pictures (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2009).
Paul Wells, Animation and America (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002)
Leonard G. Wilson, “The Historical Decline of Tuberculosis in Europe and America: Its Causes and Significance,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 45 (1990): 366–96.