October 15, 2018
F. Nightingale and Sir H. Verney with group of nurses at Claydon House. Wellcome Images Keywords: Harry Verney; Florence Nightingale

Our Disease-Fighting Heroes

by Margot Smith, DrPH  

As kids we loved movies that idolized those who fought disease. In 1936, we saw The Story of Louis Pasteur, showing him revolutionizing agriculture and medicine. The White Parade, starring Loretta Young, was a 1934 film dedicated to "the memory of Florence Nightingale." The plot concerns the travails and romances of young women as they study to become nurses.

In 1940, Vigil in the Night starred Carole Lombard and Brian Aherne and showed nurses working together to bring about better conditions for the care of the sick as well as fighting a smallpox epidemic. In The Courageous Dr. Christian (1940), a doctor fights an epidemic that breaks out in the poor section of town and tries to get the rest of the town to help out. Angel of Mercy (1939) is a biographical film about Clara Barton, the woman who founded the nursing profession during the Civil War. Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940) was based on pioneer work in the chemical treatment of diseases such as tuberculosis and syphilis.

And before all of those, of course, we all read Microbe Hunters by Paul De Kruif (1926), which told of the wonders discovered by the scientists of our time and later inspired two movies.

These films inspired many of us to go into the health care field, and promoted the idea that we could act to improve our own and our country’s health. These were our superheroes, and except for the nurses, they did not wear capes. It was a time when vaccinations effectively prevented serious illnesses and were widely accepted. I look forward to further miracles in the future for my children and grandchildren.