Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Cinema MD: A History of Medicine on Screen

Arpan K. Banerjee
Solihull, UK


Cover of Cinema MD: A History of Medicine on Screen
Cover of Cinema MD: A History of Medicine on Screen

In 1895 Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays in his lab in Wurzburg and the Lumiere brothers demonstrated cinema in Paris. X-rays revolutionized medical practice by enabling doctors to see inside the body for the first time without resorting to surgery. Cinema, also a form of image production, revolutionized entertainment in the twentieth century and established itself as a new and important art form. Cinema has become a part of modern culture, providing an important reflection of society and the human condition.

Early cinematic pioneers such as George Melies, Charles Chaplin, and D.W. Griffiths were mesmerized by the production of moving images and used them to tell stories. Slapstick comedies eventually gave way to more serious subject matter, and with the advent of sound, films took off as an important source of entertainment. Eventually cinema became a medium for tackling serious subjects.

In Cinema MD: A History of Medicine on Screen, Eelco Wijdicks sets out to analyze how doctors, nurses, hospitals, and health conditions have been portrayed in films over the last century. Using cinema as a medium, the history of medicine and culture are explored through the analysis and discussion of more than 400 films that contain a medical theme.

The first chapter examines the portrayal of doctors in cinema. Portraits of general practitioners, surgeons, gynecologists, and psychiatrists are common, but some specialties such as pathology and radiology are rarely portrayed in films. Biopics addressing medical themes include Dieterle’s The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940). General practitioners have been portrayed as far back as the early silent movies, such as in D.W. Griffith’s The Country Doctor made in 1909. Idealized physicians were depicted in early films like The Citadel directed by King Vidor in 1938 and based on A.J. Cronin’s semi-autobiographical novel. David Lean’s Brief Encounter, based on the play by Noel Coward, portrayed the stiff upper-lipped, emotionally restrained country doctor, finely portrayed by Trevor Howard.

Surgeons were stereotypically portrayed as arrogant in movies, such as Cary Grant’s role as a neurosurgeon in the 1950 film Crisis. An extreme example is the surgeon played by Alec Baldwin in Malice who declares, “A surgeon never kills a patient” and “Let me tell you somethingI am God.” Not all portrayals of surgeons are of arrogant, callous men. Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession from 1954 features Rock Hudson as a successful brain surgeon who is driven by remorse for past misdemeanors and saves the sight of the woman he loves. Trauma surgeons were portrayed in Robert Altman’s 1970 film MASH and in Ridley Scott’s 2001 Black Hawk Down.

Psychiatrists have had their fair share of exposure in films, ranging from Montgomery Clift in Suddenly Last Summer (1959) based on the Tennessee Williams play, to Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), to the mad psychiatrist depicted by Peter Sellers in Clive Donner’s 1965 film What’s New Pussycat. Psychiatrists have also been depicted unfavorably in films like Brian de Palma’s 1980 Dressed To Kill in which Michael Caine plays the part of a psychiatrist who murders women.

Compassion in medicine was brilliantly portrayed in the 1965 Kurosawa film Red Beard, in which an elder doctorDr. Niide or “Red Beard,” played by Kurosawa stalwart Toshiro Mifuneteaches a young, newly qualified doctor that working among poor patients can lead to greater fulfillment than lucrative private work.

One director whose films were full of medical themes, including terminal illness and death, was the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman whose films ranged from Persona, the 1966 film dealing with a mute patient and covering the theme of insanity, to Cries and Whispers, a harrowing 1972 film about a woman dying of cancer and her sisters’ struggle with the dying process. In 1957 Bergman directed The Seventh Seal, in which a knight plays Death in a chess match in one of the great iconic images of cinema, and the film Wild Strawberries, where a retired doctor reflects on his life on his way to receive an award.

Different chapters of the book deal with the portrayal of nurses, including the Florence Nightingale biopic The Lady with the Lamp from 1951 and the sexist depictions of the nursing role in MASH (1970). Ben Stiller portrays a male nurse in the 2010 comedy Little Fockers, and of course the evil Nurse Ratched is discussed from Milos Forman’s 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Films about infections include the 1938 Yellow Jack about yellow fever, and the currently topical pandemic film Contagion from 2011. Characters with disabilities are depicted in films like The Men (1950) in which Marlon Brando portrays a paraplegic; City Lights, a 1931 silent film with Chaplin portraying blindness; and the 1986 film Children of a Lesser God on the theme of deafness. Addiction and mental health issues are also explored in a chapter, with examples that include the portrayal of alcoholism in Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and schizophrenia in the 2001 A Beautiful Mind.

This book is a delight to read and explore. Those with an interest in the cinema, humanities, and the history of medicine will find it a fascinating read and may already be familiar with many of the films chosen and analyzed. There is also a comprehensive film index, which will help readers catch up on the many films they have not seen that are still awaiting discovery.

Cinema MD: A History of Medicine on Screen, Eelco FM Wijdicks. March 2020, Oxford University Press, 384 pages



ARPAN K. BANERJEE, MBBS (LOND), FRCP, FRCR, FBIR, qualified in medicine at St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School, London. He was a consultant radiologist in Birmingham from 1995-2019. He served on the scientific committee of the Royal College of Radiologists 2012-2016. He was Chairman of the British Society for the History of Radiology from 2012-2017. He is Treasurer of ISHRAD and adviser to radiopaedia. He is the author/co author of seven books including Classic Papers in Modern Diagnostic Radiology, 2005, and “The History of Radiology” OUP 2013.


Spring 2020  |   Sections  |  Books & Reviews

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.