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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Hospital Heretics (originally published 1/99)

Genres may come and go, but one thing that both publishers and movie producers know is that biographies will always sell. Whatever else may pass through our cultural radar screen, we always seem to be fascinated by the life stories of other people, especially those who have distinguished themselves through some notable achievement. Filmmakers picked up on this early on, offering screen portrayals of celebrated figures virtually from the beginning.

Making a movie based on someone's life is not, however, the same as writing a book about them. People's lives, after all, are episodic rather than dramatic. That is to say, a person's life is not based on a single central conflict that resolves itself neatly in the end. That dramatist's ideal could scarcely be more different from the textures of real life, which tends to be a tangled skein of conflicts with many loose ends and few real resolutions.

That may explain, in part, why physicians make appealing subjects for movie biography. The problems they confront in their daily professional lives involve the kind of life and death drama on which movies thrive, more than making up for the episodic nature of their personal lives. It is this natural relationship between the practice of medicine and high drama that has given rise to dozens of medical movies and television programs through the years. The great majority of these have featured fictional doctors, to be sure, but there have also been a number of biographical pictures about significant figures in the medical field. The most recent of these is "Patch Adams," the latest Robin Williams vehicle. For a look at some earlier movie biographies of significant medical figures, look for these titles on video.

"The Story of Louis Pasteur" (1936). Right from the start I'm fudging a bit, because Pasteur actually wasn't a doctor. Even so, his story is very much in the tradition that "Patch Adams" carries on. It is a story about a man with a new idea about how to treat illness who is relentlessly scorned and persecuted by the medical establishment of his time. In Pasteur's case, of course, it is his development of the germ theory of disease that is being ridiculed. The part of Pasteur is played by Paul Muni, one of the most highly regarded actors of the thirties and forties. He made something of a specialty of portraying historical figures during this period, numbering Emile Zola and Benito Juarez among his roles in addition to Pasteur.

"Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet" (1940). Edward G. Robinson stars as Dr. Paul Ehrlich, the man who discovered a cure for syphilis. Ehrlich is portrayed, like Patch Adams, as a doctor whose idiosyncrasies are nearly his undoing. Robinson's Ehrlich is untidy and utterly disorganized about everything other than his experiments, which absorb his attention totally. He also displays a disregard for rules with which he doesn't agree, an attitude that guarantees the censure of his superiors at the hospital in which he works.

"The Wild Child" (1970). In January of 1800, near a village in the south of France, a boy who appeared to be about 12 years old was discovered living in the wild. He was mute and showed no sign of having ever known the society of other humans. The experts who examined him believed him to be unteachable, but a young doctor named Jean-Marc Itard believed otherwise. He arranged to care for the child, along with a hired housekeeper, and to undertake the task of teaching him. Although he wasn't entirely successful, the teaching methods he developed would later become, in part, the basis for the Montessori educational program. This film version of Dr. Itard's attempts to educate the "Wild Boy of Aveyron" was written and directed by French filmmaker Francois Truffaut. Here again we have a story about a doctor whose refusal to listen to the orthodoxy of the medical establishment leads to a significant advance.

In light of the stories told by these films, we might be forgiven for assuming that the surest sign that a physician's practices are sound is the condemnation of his peers. It remains to be seen whether the methods of Patch Adams will prove to be a significant advance in the treatment of patients, but if they are as controversial as the movie makes them out to be I would be hesitant to bet against it.

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