Dr. Seuss and Other Masters Of Public Health
'Cartoon Medicine Show' Highlights Early Animators' Role in Educating People About Disease and Hygiene

By Suz Redfearn
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The cartoon takes viewers into a corner of the mind -- an unpleasant place populated by characters reminiscent of Popeye's nemesis Bluto and imps full of tortured thoughts who look a lot like creatures from the drawing board of Dr. Seuss.

"The Inside Story," a short film that includes this animated segment on the unconscious, gives the government's view of the Freudian mind and psychosomatic pain. Produced by Paramount Pictures in 1944, it was one of many government-funded health cartoons created to educate military personnel and the public between the 1920s and the 1960s.

And the similarities to Popeye and the Dr. Seuss characters? That, says National Library of Medicine medical historian Michael Sappol, is likely because Dr. Seuss -- Ted Geisel -- headed up the animation unit of the U.S. military during World War II, and because Paramount had taken over the production company and the animators who were responsible for Popeye.

Walt Disney even made a few of the films in the 1920s, when he was a young animator struggling to keep his nascent Kansas City studio afloat, and he worked on others in the 1940s and '50s. It was all part of the weird intersection of cartooning and public health that is explored in "The Cartoon Medicine Show: Animated Cartoons From the Collection of the National Library of Medicine," to be presented Wednesday and Thursday at the National Academy of Sciences.

"Then, people felt that communicating health information to the public with cartoons was a modern way of teaching, a better way than just lecturing -- and they were all very excited about it," says Sappol, curator of "The Cartoon Medicine Show."

With animation, those in public health acquired a handy tool for explaining what went on inside the body.

In "Man Alive" -- a cartoon commissioned by the American Cancer Society, created by the same animators who made Mr. Magoo and nominated for an Academy Award in 1952 -- an average Joe's denial that he might have the symptoms of stomach cancer is compared to his denial that his car might have costly engine trouble. In another cancer film, "The Traitor Within," the body's healthy cells are shown as dutiful factory workers, while a cancer cell is a good factory worker gone bad, turning into an evil, spider-like creature that runs amok, dividing, beating up the good workers and eating up everything the factory produces.

In many of the films made during and shortly after wartime, the inside of the body is depicted as a battlefield, with various enemies that include bacteria and other germs. And in a silent 1920s film that Disney created, tooth decay is portrayed as acid demons battering a tooth with pickaxes and drills.

The voices are familiar, too. Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck and Woody Woodpecker, served as the voice of Private McGullicuddy and Private Snafu, the dopey lead guys in two now-rare series of cartoons created in the 1940s to show enlisted men how, for example, to keep their mess gear clean, avoid fear of battle and properly use the bathroom at base camp. Blanc's voice also shows up in "Enemy Bacteria," a melodramatic 1945 saga commissioned by the U.S. Navy, told from the point of view of a germ that has gotten past a surgeon and into a patient's body.

David Cantor, a medical historian at the National Library of Medicine who focuses on cancer, said these films had their heyday during WWII and just after. Between 1921 and 1945, eight public health films about cancer were created. But in 1946 alone, six were released, and animation became the main medium for public health education.

"Not only does the number of films increase then, but also the variety among them. Before then, they were dry melodramas using actors and telling the same story: Someone -- usually a woman -- is worried about a lump, they go meet with the physician, then get appropriate treatment. But in the 1940s, animated films like 'Man Alive' appear and they are not at all dour -- they are playful, imaginative, enjoyable, with visual jokes, drawing off techniques developed by popular animators in the 1940s."

Not surprisingly, these films espoused information and attitudes that are outmoded today. Many of the animated dental films from the 1920s to the 1940s say little about flossing and teach the kind of brushing techniques that no dentists recommend today. The cancer films claim that cancer is not hereditary. The 1950 tuberculosis film "Rodney" says nothing of antibiotics, and the only option for the affable but disease-ridden protagonist is to spend months in a hospital. Also, Sappol says, many of the films aimed at GIs use racial and ethnic stereotypes that were part of the popular culture at the time.

According to Sappol, these films have been seen by very few people since 1945. In most cases, they were commissioned, shown to the public or to troops for a few years, then retired and shelved away. Many have gone missing altogether; of the 10 Private McGullicuddy films, medical historians have been able to find copies of only six.

The National Library of Medicine is hoping the show will spark interest and research into these cartoons, since little is known about their history -- what they cost, how much they influenced people and, in some cases, who specifically worked on them.

"The Cartoon Medicine Show: Animated Cartoons From the Collection of the National Library of Medicine" will be presented Wednesday and Thursday, 6 to 8 p.m., at the National Academy of Sciences Auditorium, 2100 C St. NW. Commentary will be provided by Sappol, Cantor and Donald Crafton, chairman of the department of film, television and theatre at the University of Notre Dame. Admission is free, but RSVPs are required. E-mail arts@nas.edu or call 202-334-2436. For more information, go to http://www7.nationalacademies.org/arts/ and click on "Other Events." ยท

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