In the 1950s, the health interventions we may consider routine were still revolutionary.
Antibiotics had only recently become available, and chemotherapy was still new. Even the ideas that children had distinct personalities and that child development was worth studying were novel.
And in those days of the Cold War, midcentury Americans had to wonder: was it possible for the communist world to brainwash them?
Enter the New York Academy of Medicine and WNYC, a radio station owned by New York City at the time. During the 1940s and 1950s, they created health-related lecture broadcasts, some directed at the public and others at doctors. Now, those lectures are online, digitized by NYAM and New York Public Radio, and they present an intriguing view of the state of midcentury medicine and health.
Take the issue of cancer. In a 1957 lecture, Harold Sage, a surgeon, recommends that physicians treating patients with incurable cancer should consider withholding information from patients to retain their confidence in their doctor. He grapples with the ethical conundrums of cancer treatment in an age of much lower survival rates.
Chemotherapy pioneer Sidney Farber offers another grim glimpse at the state of cancer treatment at the time, noting that the effects were largely temporary.
One of the collection’s gems is a symposium on communist brainwashing by the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s China, a timely topic at the Cold War’s height. The 1957 broadcast brings together some of the era’s psychologists to consider whether brainwashing was possible and how torture was used to elicit confessions and information from U.S. servicemen during the Korean War.
The recordings vary in length — and include transcripts. Some include articles that put them in context. They all come with the chance for you to compare the medical past with the present — and reflect on how far medicine has come.