By Kathy High and Michael Sappol ~
Originally published in Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine, 2011 and also available on Medicine on Screen: Films and Essays from NLM.
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 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 also 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.
Rodney‘s modernist cartoon animation renderings of cars, people, lungs, bacterial invasion, diagnostic technology, and treatment methods capture that moment in American life and medicine when everything felt modern. The main vector of modernity here is the X-ray. (The National Tuberculosis Association commissioned Rodney for a campaign to encourage 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 became practicable only 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 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.
Kathy High is a media artist from New York working with biology and art. She produces videos, sculptures, and installations that have been exhibited in galleries and museums nationally and internationally. High is Associate Professor of Video and New Media in the Department of Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a department specializing in integrated electronic arts practices.
Michael Sappol is the author of Body Modern: Fritz Kahn, Scientific Illustration, and the Homuncular Subject, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America and Dream Anatomy, and the editor of A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Age of Empire and Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine.