The Johns Hopkins Gazette: December 6, 1999
December 6, 1999
VOL. 29, NO. 15


Hollywood Docs:
Prof's Book Offers a Second Opinion

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Moviegoers sometimes cringe or look away when the camera gets too up-close-and-personal to an autopsy or a childbirth scene. People in the medical professions, however, are more apt to recoil from the appearance of stereotypes, like the suave doctor who cozies up to the nursing staff, the intern who routinely outshines his stodgy superiors or the oft-repeated phrase "take two aspirin and call me in the morning."

With portraits ranging from the upstanding Dr. Kildare to the wry Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H, filmmakers have both molded and mirrored public opinion on doctors and medicine. The past 60 years have witnessed a tremendous revolution in the science of healing, and screenwriters have offered their own version of this medical progress, which isn't always positive.

Hollywood's take on the world of medicine is the subject of Peter Dans' soon-to-be-published book titled Doctors in the Movies: Boil the Water and Just Say Aah (Medi-Ed Press, $34.95).

Dans, an associate professor of internal medicine in the School of Medicine, has condensed his "thousands of hours of movie watching" into a 408-page work that offers his insights and critiques of more than 70 films that feature at least one main character in the medical profession. More than just offering reviews, Dans has set out to chronicle the history of medicine as seen through the camera lens.

Author Peter Dans draws on 10 years of writing a column called "The Physician at the Movies."

"It was an opportunity for me to give a little bit of a historical overview and then try to tie the movies in a thematic way to that historical anchor," says Dans, a 1961 graduate of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. "I didn't know of any book that was in existence like this, and so I thought it would be good to use film in a fun way to look at some important issues."

In January, the Turner Classic Movies cable network will feature a monthlong Salute to Doctors in the Movies, inspired by Dans' book.

A self-described lifelong lover of films, Dans has for 10 years written a column titled "The Physician at the Movies" for The Pharos, the quarterly journal of the Alpha Omega Alpha honor medical society. "My charge is to look at movies through the eyes of a physician." Roughly one-quarter of the films reviewed in the book, Dans says, first appeared in some form in The Pharos.

His idea for the book, he says, arose in 1995 just after he was downsized from a health-related computer software firm and granted severance pay. Dans used part of his free time to research films in the medical genre and to complete several chapters, one of which would ultimately become the book's first chapter, "Hollywood Goes to Medical School." Dans says many of the movies in the book he had already seen, but through his research--in such places as the Library of Congress--he came across many old ones previously unknown to him, such as Mary Stevens, M.D. and Doctor Bull, starring Will Rogers.

The book examines movies that range from the classic Doctor Zhivago with Omar Sharif to the lighthearted comedy What About Bob? starring Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss.

Dans says the challenge in writing was to make the book both fun and readable while also being instructive. He eventually opted for each chapter to be composed of examinations of films with a common theme, choosing to look at both the progressive aspects of caregiving and what filmmakers perceive as the dark side of the medical profession, as explored in films like Malice.

Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro), lost in a sleeplike state for decades, is brought back into the world when Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) treats him with a new experimental drug in 'Awakenings.'

In the chapter titled "The Institution Turns Evil," Dans critiques films such as 1971's The Hospital, starring George C. Scott, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the 1975 film based on Ken Kesey's novel of the same name. In the latter, the main character, played convincingly by Jack Nicholson, tries in vain to challenge the rules of the mental institution. Dans refers to Louise Fletcher's inspired performance as Nurse Ratched in that film as "an unusual example of a nurse as villain."

The book has an extensive filmography, a bibliography and an appendix that lists recurring medical themes and stereotypes. Two chapters are devoted to the underrepresentation of female and black doctors in films.

Doctors in the Movies is by no means a collection of the author's favorite films. Dans' no-holds-barred style of writing attacks some films that he believes "just got it wrong."

In the first chapter, Dans takes shots at Patch Adams, starring Robin Williams as the title character. Based upon Hunter "Patch" Adams' own medical school experience, the 1998 release relates how Patch teaches the school's dean and "insensitive white male faculty members" about compassion and opens his own free health clinic where humor is the main therapy.

"People resonated to the message, and the message itself is a good one. The problem I had was, I had started a migrant health clinic in Colorado and was in the wave of people who were already doing something when this guy was in medical school. If it had come out in 1970, then it would have been topical. But coming out in 1998 like it did, it missed the point," Dans says. "Plus, I also didn't like the fact that he was demeaning everybody but himself and this small band of good guys. I thought that was completely unfair."

Dans, who from 1978 to 1991 directed a Hopkins office of medical practice evaluation aimed at improving patient care and decreasing costs, says this "self-indulgent, vulgar film" creates a world that is too black and white. Yet, he points out, that didn't stop the film from earning more than $125 million at the box office.

Dans says he was sent an unabashed fan letter from a Harvard medical professor in response to his original Patch Adams review in The Pharos.

"He wrote that somebody had to say those kinds of things," says Dans, adding that he feels many recent films are overly critical of doctors. "I know I'm going to turn some people off. But more people have to say what they think." Referring to the book, Dans says, "These reviews are just my opinion. I'm not trying to say this is medicine's opinion."

Dans adds that some of the campiest films contain wonderful moments, like the scene in the 1947 film Welcome Stranger where a doctor directs his own appendectomy using a mirror. "Now that, of course, is just completely ludicrous," Dans says. "But funny."

The Turner Classic Movies series on doctors in films starts Jan. 3, 2000, and will continue each Monday night of the month. Dans says viewers will be able to see some films, included in the book, that are not currently available on video. The book is slated to be released on Dec. 20.