Test Tube TV: Cooked up in a JHU lab by a p.r. whiz, 'The Johns Hopkins Science Review' experiment broke new ground and created a big reaction nationally from 1948-60.

December 11, 1996|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

In the 1940s, a country just introduced to TV spent Friday nights with four snappy service men. "Oh, we're the men from Texaco, we work from Maine to Mexico " Milton Berle would then burst into living rooms wearing a dress.

But TV's first superstar didn't completely own Friday nights. Uncle Milty's competition over on CBS was a dignified science show from a Baltimore university, of all places.

"The Johns Hopkins Science Review" debuted on Dec. 17, 1948, with one camera and zero sponsors. Before Mr. Wizard, long before Bill Nye "The Science Guy," a brainy band of faculty conducted scientific experiments live on national television. During its 12-year run, the award-winning program would hold its own against Berle, Arthur Godfrey, even "Gunsmoke's" Marshal Dillon.

"It had faced, and survived, some of the ruggedest competition that big-time television could offer," Leo Geier wrote 40 years ago in "Ten Years With Television at Johns Hopkins University." "It proved Hopkins scientists could appear without compromising their professional ethics."

But this was TV, after all.

"I drank radioactive iodine on camera," recalls Robert Ballentine, 82, a retired Hopkins research scientist. While Uncle Milty clowned around one Friday night in 1950, a Geiger counter held up to Ballentine showed the radioactivity accumulating in his thyroid.

"It was a show-stopper," Ballentine says. "I gave 2,000 lectures at Hopkins -- and one was on TV."

After Sputnik was launched, another Hopkins professor was minding his own ground-breaking business when he got a casting call: Please report to Television Hill with your science equipment. We go live at 9. What does that mean?

"I think I did the show twice," says Robert Pond, 79, a former professor of material sciences. "It was just an odd thing for a college professor to do."

Odd, maybe. Good public relations, definitely.

Credit a chain-smoking man named Lynn Poole for pioneering the first network program produced by a university. Poole, JHU's public relations director, believed the "Science Review" could provide "good, dignified publicity" for Johns Hopkins. He should know.

Before coming to Hopkins, Poole was a public relations officer for the Air Force, and later started child and adult educational programs at the Walters Art Gallery. Poole, then 36, created, wrote, produced and hosted the 30-minute "Science Review" from Remsen Hall on the Homewood campus. He was also casting director, trolling the campus for guest scientists. The press dutifully plugged the show.

"Dr. John Kopper, of the Hopkins School of Engineering, will be the guest on this week's show," The Sun reported on Jan. 18, 1949. "Question of the week will be: If a fuse blows out in your home, can you insert a penny in the fuse box to safely set up the flow of current?"

The questions typically did not tax the minds of these scientists.

"I remember the show was a helluva waste of time," says Kopper, 84. He remembers his "What is Electricity?" episode went well, except for the 20-second power shortage during the show. "Might as well drift through in the darkness, I thought." He didn't much like rehearsing, either. "People were supposed to be doing research," he says.

A born-again fan of the show, Kopper might still be sore because he was stuck in rehearsal when he went from professor to parent. Kopper rushed to the hospital to see his daughter, then rushed back to be on television, of all things.

"I didn't watch the show myself," Kopper says. "We didn't have a TV."

Not many folks did then. Remember, this was before re-runs, syndication, Marc Steiner and rating codes. "The Science Review" was strictly G-rated -- well, except maybe for the "Are You Too Fat?" show, which featured a womanly woman weighing herself in just a towel. OK, it turned out she was wearing a bathing suit, too. But it was juicy TV for 1955. That Poole was a bit of a rascal.

"You needed to be a showman," Pond says. "And Lynn had a great personality."

Firsts

With such shows as "Industrial Hygiene" and "A Visit to Our Studio," the program needed the occasional lightning. So the distinguished Poole climbed part-way up the world's largest TV tower, and on another episode, ingested a grasshopper. All in the name of science, and all on the air.

"The Science Review" was the first program to show a live birth, the first to couple a camera to a microscope. Viewers saw the first televised X-ray -- stunning images of an X-rayed hand complete with a wedding ring. The show also staged the first inter-city medical consultation, hooking up doctors from Washington, New York and Baltimore.

In 1953, the program taught female viewers how to examine themselves for breast cancer. It was gutsy material for a fledgling industry that would insist Rob and Laura sleep in separate beds.

At its peak, the show was seen in 21 cities (and in Europe) and featured A-list guests from "Big Bang" theorist George Gamow to rocket engineer Wernher von Braun to Howard Urey, co-developer of the atom bomb.

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