Skip baseball, watch a movie

A film you shouldn't forget.

The Phillies are having a dismal season (and that is the politest term I can think of for describing it). So, there’s no need to sit down at night and watch another game. Turn off the TV and turn on the computer and you can stream some films about public health. Or visit your local library and check them out. Either way, they're free.

The Poisoner’s Handbook”

This episode from the popular PBS series The American Experience, first aired in January 2014. It’s now available for streaming online. he film charts the development of forensic science through the work of physician Charles Norris, New York City’s first scientifically trained medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, the city’s pathbreaking toxicologist. It takes us through the history of the United States in the 1920s, when murder by poisoning was more common than it is today.

There are reenactments of laboratory and courtroom scenes, interviews with Deborah Blum (author of the book on which the episode is based) and historical film clips and images. Some of it unfolds like a murder mystery as deaths by poisoning are uncovered thanks to the emergence of the new laboratory science of forensic. In other cases, deaths are shown to result from industrial poisons—like radium on watch dials and tetraethyl lead, a gasoline additive. The terrible toll of toxic alcohol, consumed during Prohibition, is also highlighted. At almost two hours, this is a long and sometimes overly detailed history, but one that effectively illuminates the importance of forensic science and that reveals the toxins people once encountered deliberately—by buying X-radium cooking utensils, and “lead water” to soothe poison ivy—and at the hands of evildoers.

Hemo the Magnificent”

If it sounds familiar then you must have gone to school in the 1950s, '60s, or even the '70s. Watch it on your computer. The 1957 movie, and others in the Bell Laboratory Science Series from AT&T, were made for classroom use and issued from 1956 to 1964. Professor Frank Baxter appeared as the expert in all of the films. The credits for Hemo include a surprising list of luminaries. It was written and directed by Frank Capra, best known for his Oscar winning Hollywood films, including It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It Happened One Night. The voices of the animated characters in the film come from Mel Blanc, best known for his work with Warner Brothers as the voice of Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, and many famous cartoon characters.

As the name suggests, Hemo teaches about the circulation of the blood, the workings of the body, evolution, and the harmonious relationship between religion and science. There’s plenty of scientific footage mixed with the animation, and lots of shots of Dr. Baxter presenting a mechanistic view of the human body. One clue to the age of the film is the cigarette dangling from the lips of the “Script Writer” played by actor Richard Carlson. If you saw it back in high school, watch it again and remember just how simple the world of medical science once seemed.

Influenza 1918”

Another great American Experience episode, “Influenza 1918" is not available for streaming but can be found in many public libraries. It opens with the Red Sox World Series victory of 1918, the year Babe Ruth pitched a shutout in the opening game. The following year Ruth was traded to the Yankees, the “Curse of the Bambino” was born. It would be 86 years before the Red Sox won another World Series. The Red Sox opponents of 1918, the Chicago Cubs, last won a World Series in 1908. Kind of puts the current Phillies, season in perspective, doesn’t it? But enough about baseball.

“Influenza 1918” is a gripping account of the worst epidemic in American history, one that killed over 675,000 people in this country alone. The video features the recollections of survivors, including writer William Maxwell, who lost his mother. Actors read the words of others, such as Victor Vaughn, surgeon general of the Army in 1918, and the author Katherine Anne Porter, who survived the flu but lost the man she loved. The film discusses the catastrophic decision of Philadelphia to host a Liberty Loan drive that brought 200,000 spectators together to watch the parade. Death rates climbed in the weeks that followed. The film closes with the suggestion that Americans have forgotten much about this episode, although in light of recent epidemics, that may no longer be the case. We hope.

Janet Golden's previous posts on public health entertainment: Examining lovesickness: DSM vs. Springsteen diagnostics . . . Bed bugs, hookworks, and mosquitoes: A public health playlist for the blues . . . From “TB Blues” to “Bacteria”: A musical medical history playbook . . . and her Christmas special, Public health movie stocking stuffers.

Read more about The Public's Health.