Wonders of Nature and Miracles of Medicine

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Wonders of Nature and Miracles of Medicine

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

CUNY Graduate Center

From its inception in 1936 until 1972 when it died as a weekly magazine, LIFE was one of the most potent single forces in shaping Americans‟ visual images of themselves and the world at large. Before television, only LIFE provided the general public with images that became so familiar they took on the status of icons. While people did see cheerleaders or nurses or doctors in their own lives or in their local newspapers, it was LIFE photography that created in the public‟s eye such archetypes as The Cheerleader, The Army Nurse, or The Country Doctor. Ordinary Americans came to picture things around them as posed and framed by the photographers and editors of LIFE who somehow made their images seem more real than reality itself. And for people and things not readily observed in everyday life, LIFE‟s photos were even more powerful in creating common images, whether of a celebrity like Marilyn Monroe or of a promising new device like the huge 2,000,000-volt linear accelerator hovering over a patient and touted as “fresh hope on cancer.” This slide presentation draws upon Professor Hansen‟s research on the media coverage of medical breakthroughs since the 1880s. One of the themes in this narrative is that the presentation of science in LIFE partook of a humane, yet materialistic outlook in which natural wonders and medical miracles prompted viewers‟ awe, but with no suggestion of mystery, purpose, or spirituality. Another point is that LIFE‟s pioneering efforts to present contemporary science to a very broad public audience spurred the revival of Scientific American magazine and shaped its modus operandi.

Speaker

Bert Hansen

Baruch College, City University of New York

From its inception in 1936 until 1972 when it died as a weekly magazine, LIFE was one of the most potent single forces in shaping Americans‟ visual images of themselves and the world at large. Before television, only LIFE provided the general public with images that became so familiar they took on the status of icons. While people did see cheerleaders or nurses or doctors in their own lives or in their local newspapers, it was LIFE photography that created in the public‟s eye such archetypes as The Cheerleader, The Army Nurse, or The Country Doctor. Ordinary Americans came to picture things around them as posed and framed by the photographers and editors of LIFE who somehow made their images seem more real than reality itself. And for people and things not readily observed in everyday life, LIFE‟s photos were even more powerful in creating common images, whether of a celebrity like Marilyn Monroe or of a promising new device like the huge 2,000,000-volt linear accelerator hovering over a patient and touted as “fresh hope on cancer.” This slide presentation draws upon Professor Hansen‟s research on the media coverage of medical breakthroughs since the 1880s. One of the themes in this narrative is that the presentation of science in LIFE partook of a humane, yet materialistic outlook in which natural wonders and medical miracles prompted viewers‟ awe, but with no suggestion of mystery, purpose, or spirituality. Another point is that LIFE‟s pioneering efforts to present contemporary science to a very broad public audience spurred the revival of Scientific American magazine and shaped its modus operandi.

Bert Hansen is Professor of History at Baruch College of the City University of New York, where he teaches courses on American civilization and the history of science and medicine. He holds a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Columbia and a Ph.D. in history of science from Princeton. His scholarly writings explore the uses and transformations of science and medicine both within the professions and in the wider public culture. Trained as a medievalist, Dr. Hansen has published a major study on Nicole Oresme and examined relations between natural sciences and magic from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century. He later redirected his focus to scientific medicine in American culture during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His writings have appeared in numerous book chapters, teaching anthologies, and scholarly journals including the American Journal of Public Health, the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, and the American Historical Review; topics of this research include the history of childbirth, physicians‟ „discovery‟ of homosexuality, medical education, and science in popular imagery. Dr. Hansen recently published Picturing Medical Progress from Pasteur to Polio: A History of Mass Media Images and Popular Attitudes in America (Rutgers University Press, 2009).