News at Medicine - November 2009 - Medical humanities lecturer engages audience

Medical humanities lecturer engages audience
November 18, 2009

Using images from the now-defunct Life Magazine, Dr. Bert Hansen made a different era come alive to the audience attending the 2009 Dr. Nigel Rusted Lecture in the Medical Humanities on Nov. 13.


Dr. Nigel Rusted, age 102, and this year’s Dr. Nigel Rusted Lecturer in the Medical Humanities, Dr. Bert Hansen.

Life Magazine started in the mid 1930s and survived until the early 1970s. Dr. Hansen said that as a “big heavy picture book” it brought a universally-appreciated style of photojournalism to the public of the day.
Dr. Hansen’s lecture focused on medical images from Life.  From the discovery of the polio vaccine in the mid 1950s the magazine carried 1,100 medical stories – an average of two per month.

Life celebrated these scientific discoveries and the magazine’s attention to science was not casual,” he explained. “The publisher, Henry Luce, had the ambition to keep science honest. Life had a calm secular approach. It was primarily a photography show – the goal was the picture, the photograph, that told the story – the text explained the picture.”

Dr. Hansen was trained as a medievalist but has re-directed his academic work to focus on the study of medicine and culture during the 19th and 20th centuries. He is a professor of history at Baruch College of The City University of New York. In an interview prior to the Dr. Nigel Rusted lecture, he explained that he had shifted his academic focus to teach material more accessible to students.

“The history of medicine is more engaging,” he said. “Patients and epidemics involve real people— it is a thrilling kind of history.”

At The City University, Dr. Hansen teaches mainly business students, many of them first-generation immigrants to the United States.

“Most of my students are the first generation to go to university – they are the working poor. There are 90 different languages spoken at The City University of New York – the new immigrants are ambitious. It is a thrilling place to be. Our typical student is going to get an accounting degree, so I help to give them a polish to their resume.”

Dr. Hansen’s talk was based on one chapter of his new book Picturing Medical Progress from Pasteur to Polio: A History of Mass Media Images and Popular Attitudes in America.