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Vol. LIX, No. 7
April 6, 2007

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Fighting Germs, One Cartoon at a Time

Fighting Germs, One Cartoon at a Time
Malaria Mike. Private Snafu. General Germ. New stars of the Cartoon Network? Actually, they’re animated characters from the early days of film, used as health education tools for the military and public. They’ve also recently returned to the spotlight, thanks to an innovative program from the National Library of Medicine.

When moviemaking began, people believed film could be used not just for entertainment, but also as a form of education. Starting in the early 1920s, movie bigwigs as well known as Walt Disney and Frank Capra put their mark on films used by physicians, government agencies and voluntary associations to present and explain health information on a wide variety of topics. Last fall, NLM historians put together several examples of these films, many of them rare, for a National Academy of Sciences screening. Due to popular demand, the films were recently screened in a 2-night “Cartoon Medicine Show” at NIH.

“These films are rich social documents that show how people lived and what they thought,” explained NLM historian Dr. Michael Sappol. “And for these people, film was a very exciting and new technology, a modern way to teach and to learn. It was seen as not just a way to persuade people to do something, but to actually shape the way they thought people ought to be.”

The first 2-hour screening, featuring films from 1922 to 1945, started with silent shorts produced by Disney before he reached Hollywood, when he could still greatly appreciate the $500 a dentist paid him for the work, Sappol said. In “Tommy Tucker’s Tooth,” a cavity created by “acid demons” is compared to what happens when a mother fails to darn socks; in “Clara Cleans Her Teeth,” a girl is visited in her sleep by animated dental tools.

Another film from the silent era, “Ask Your Dentist” (1924), demonstrates the excitement at the time for visual education—tooth models, book displays, microscopes, brushing instruction—but also features a recurrent theme in the cartoons: the body as battle zone. “There’s a big emphasis on warfare,” said co-presenter Dr. David Cantor, president of the Washington Society for the History of Medicine. “Your body, in these films, is a vulnerable, militarized world.”

“Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike” (1944) “Commandments for Health: Cleaning Mess Gear” (1945) “Man Alive” (1952)
Above (from l): Stills from the films Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike (1944), Commandments for Health: Cleaning Mess Gear (1945) and Man Alive (1952)

True to the times, in “General Germ,” a microbe in German military uniform leads his troops—who resemble devils—to invade an unprotected molar. He’s later fought off by staples of a tooth-healthy diet: vegetables, grains and cod liver oil.

Several of the other films were produced by the U.S. military for soldiers in World War II. One example, from the widely seen series, “Private Snafu,” had an esteemed pedigree of filmmakers including Chuck Jones, Frank Capra and Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and follows the adventures of “Malaria Mike,” a sadistic mosquito voiced by Mel Blanc, the famous voice of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig. Malaria Mike’s goal is to launch his disease-laden snout into the hapless soldier Snafu, who too often leaves his bare derrière unguarded.

The screening also included three rare military films by Warner Bros. animators from the “Commandments for Health” series. They feature Private McGillicuddy, a Marine who foolishly ignores the basics of preventing dysentery, washing mess gear and cleaning himself and who ends up getting carted off by island natives and forcibly bathed.

These films include racist stereotypes—for example, contaminating flies are Japanese caricatures—reflecting the prejudices of wartime America, Sappol said. Cantor pointed out that the movies were shown to soldiers in the South Pacific to reinforce strong feelings against the enemy.

In the longest film of the first screening, “Enemy Bacteria,” produced by Walter Lantz of “Woody Woodpecker” fame, the object of ridicule is a doctor. In this rare, live-action and animated film from 1945, a menacing bacterial germ of a narrator mocks a Navy corpsman surgical assistant who doesn’t wash up as well as he should and who contaminates an instrument during surgical prep. Frightening bacteria blobs attack the surgical site in a soldier’s leg, to the point that it’s amputated, all to the cackling narrator’s glee. There can be no doubt it would have had an effect on its medical military audience.

A lighter film, “The Inside Story,” attempts to explain what causes psychosomatic pain. The cartoon represents the brain as a happy oasis where a vigilant police officer has to keep out invading dark-thought characters crying out such things as: “I’m lonely,” “Stop picking on me,” and “I’m my own worst enemy” (this last statement coming from conjoined twins). These bleak thoughts eventually wake the subconscious, an ogre who digs up a repressed memory of a knee injury to send pain there.

“The Inside Story” (1944)
A still from the film “The Inside Story” (1944)

As the second night of cartoons moved into the late 1940s and 1950s, the medical films dealt more with the preoccupations of postwar society. “There is a big emphasis on the problem of social adjustment and emotion management,” Sappol said. “There is a great deal of enchantment with laboratory science and technology and an insistence on the necessity of patient compliance and deference to the wisdom of the health professional.”

The cartoons—covering topics like cancer, tuberculosis, public health screenings and X-rays—often feature “an idealized vision of modern society that is suburbanized, where companionate marriage, middle-class social identity and automobile life are the prescriptive norm,” Sappol explained.

He said the clear influence of Matisse, Picasso and fine graphic design in these films also reflect “a larger cultural preoccupation with getting modern, being modern, a feeling that civilization had entered a new age.”

And, as in the earlier screening, whether the films end up happily or in a dark lesson of what can go wrong, they reveal quite a bit about scientific views and what was considered appropriate medical advice in their times. They also demonstrate that Americans always saw more advances in their medical future—no matter how many scary-voiced blobs and uniform-clad germs they might have to fight to get there. NIH Record Icon

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