Medical movie examiner

In a new book, an internist gives his diagnosis of films about doctors, hospitals and medicine


January 02, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | By Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

Peter E. Dans, M.D., wants you to know he's only one man, who, like every man, has his point of view. So when you read his new book, "Doctors in the Movies" (Medi-Ed Press, $32), as he hopes you will, bear in mind that it's a highly personal, idiosyncratic take on some of the most enduring icons in American film: doctors, hospitals and the institution of medicine. "I make no pretense that this is anything but my opinions," Dans said. "But being someone who is interested in the evolution of medical care and health care in America, it seemed a nice ... hook for some of these things."

Dans, who lives with his wife, Colette, in Cockeysville, has written the "Physician at the Movies" column for Pharos, a national quarterly medical journal, for 10 years and began writing the book four years ago, when he was downsized from a medical software firm and received a nice chunk of severance pay.

Dans, an internist, has always had an interest in the dynamics of medical care delivery. He has treated cholera in Calcutta, India, opened a migrant health clinic in Colorado and studied the common cold at the National Institutes of Health. Today, Dans teaches medical ethics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and consults with a computer software company specializing in pharmaceutical care for the elderly. He has also served as a health policy fellow in the U.S. Senate and established Hopkins' office of medical practice evaluation.

So when an opportunity presented itself to write a book about the movies, Dans decided to marry his profession and his hobby.

In the book, Dans writes about 74 movies, about a quarter of which he reviewed in Pharos. After searching for titles with the help of archivists, preservationists and film researchers and watching videos for hundreds of hours, Dans began to see some patterns. There were recurring themes in the films (doctor as hero; doctor as greedy, lascivious scoundrel; hospitals as temples of healing; hospitals as temples of doom), there were some dispiriting absences (of African-Americans and women) and there were some subtle changes over time.

The best years

The 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were a "Golden Age" of medicine, he writes in the book, when scientific breakthroughs helped put physicians on a pedestal and "public opinion polls consistently ranked physicians among the most highly admired individuals, comparable to or better than Supreme Court justices."

The movies of the time reflected these sentiments -- "Arrowsmith" (1931) and the "Dr. Kildare" series of the 1940s being two prime examples -- and they had an effect on young people considering a medical career.

"I talked to one of the professors at Harvard, and basically she said that even though he was a myth the Kildare film [came out] at a time when she was thinking about medicine," Dans said. "She could go to the film and see what doctors did. And they always solved the problem in 90 minutes."

Still, even in medicine's Golden Age, not all movies valorized the medical profession. Dans points to "Kings Row" (1942), in which Claude Rains and Charles Coburn star as two less-than-heroic doctors. ("Kings Row" may be best remembered for Ronald Reagan's line, "Where's the rest of me?") By the 1970s, movies like "M*A*S*H" and "The Hospital" freely bashed a profession that was perceived in the same critical light as most every other traditional institution. Dans says the shattering of the "good doctor" myth was both good and bad.

"People put doctors on a pedestal and [doctors] began to believe the mythology and acted that way," he said, "and the mythology of being on call all the time also led people to not put a priority on their life relationships. [But] the other side is the issue of trying to feel good about what you're doing. It's nice to feel appreciated, especially at a time like this. ... You would like to think what you do has some social worth."

Dans criticizes some recent releases he feels do a disservice to medicine. "Patch Adams" and "Critical Care" are two egregious misrepresentations of medical practice, he says, and he wasn't too crazy about Martin Scorsese's "Bringing Out the Dead," either. But he doesn't worry too much about viewers bringing those perceptions into the examining room. "People have a lot of encounters with their doctors and that frames their thinking," he said, "for good or ill."

(Dans has a great deal of fun in "Doctors in the Movies" in an appendix dedicated to common cliches, like the lines "Boil the water" and "Just say `Aah.' " The author's personal favorite is the classically hokey motif of doctors directing their own operations.)

What's to come

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