Johns Hopkins Magazine - February 1995 Issue

"Live from Baltimore -- It's the Johns Hopkins Science Review!"

By Sue De Pasquale

Back in 1948 when TV was still in its infancy, Johns Hopkins hit the airwaves with a long-running weekly program that featured workd renowned scientists and scientific "firsts." During its heyday, more than one million viewers tuned in from across the nation.

On Tuesday night, December 5,1950, families across America settled down before the blue glow of their television sets for an evening of entertainment. While many flipped to the NBC network to watch the wildly popular Milton Berle, there were others--a sizeable number, in fact--who tuned in to the DuMont network. They were lured by the promise that they would witness medical history in the making on that night's live airing of The Johns Hopkins Science Review.

"If I seem a bit eager to get on with the program, it's because I'm excited," began the show's announcer Lynn Poole, from his customary opening spot behind a wooden desk. "Tonight, we bring you the first public showing of an amazing new machine, developed by Dr. Russell Morgan, chief of radiology here at Johns Hopkins."

Over the course of the next 30 minutes, the white- coated Dr. Morgan showed how he had developed the world's first X-ray fluoroscope, equipped to provide clear, moving images of the body's dynamic processes--the pulsating heart, the lungs as they inflate and deflate. Once Morgan had demonstrated the fluoroscope, the camera cut back to Poole. "We are about to witness a momentous event," said the announcer. "The first inter-city diagnosis and consultation ever seen on TV."

The camera panned back to the massive fluoroscope, under which lay a burly machinist. A few weeks earlier, an industrial accident had left him with several shards of metal in his back. Recently he'd begun coughing up small amounts of blood and experiencing excruciating pain. Were the metal pieces in danger of piercing his lungs?

Two doctors, one in Chicago, the other in New York, would help Dr. Morgan in Baltimore with the diagnosis. They sat in front of their respective TV sets, connected by phone to the Baltimore studio.

"Dr. Hodges, do you hear me? Are you receiving the picture?" asked Poole.

The doctor's reply was prompt. "Yes, I hear you and I am receiving the picture clearly."

Then Poole asked, "In New York, Dr. Sennot, do you hear me?"

"This is Dr. Sennot in New York, and I am receiving the picture clearly."

At Sennot's request, the patient took a deep breath. The metal particles, visible on the fluoroscope as small black shadows, did not move. Then Hodges asked Gould to palpate the patient's back. This time the shadows did move. After several more moments of consultation, the three arrived at a diagnosis.

"Mr. Carter, we have good news for you," Morgan leaned down to tell the prone patient. "We can remove the foreign bodies surgically with relatively little difficulty. From a vocational standpoint, you'll be in fine shape after a relatively minor operation."

For the viewing audience at home, this was heady stuff. "The X-ray program of last night left us with a feeling that a miracle was performed in our living rooms," wrote one viewer from Boonton, New Jersey. "Programs such as these are a priceless possession in the lives of average people." Indeed, throughout this postwar period when television was still in its infancy, Americans were captivated by the new medium. And they were hungry to learn about the latest advances in science--advances, they believed with the optimism of that era, that would ultimately improve their own lives. The Johns Hopkins Science Review fueled that collective appetite by offering up a regular menu of world- renowned scientists and scientific "firsts."

The long list of those who appeared on Hopkins television during its 12-year run from 1948 to 1960 reads like a "Who's Who" of scientific luminaries: "Big Bang" theorist George Gamow; Wernher von Braun, the pioneering rocket engineer; Harold Urey, co-developer of the atom bomb; James Van Allen, who first confirmed the existence of radiation belts around the Earth. Frequently, the show's producers called on Hopkins faculty to appear: William Foxwell Albright, for instance, on "Archaeology of the Holy Land," and Abel Wolman, with the cautionary "Don't Drink That Water." Actor John Astin '52, later of Addams Family fame, made his TV debut while a Hopkins undergraduate. The young Astin enthusiastically played the role of a carnival barker in a Science Review program about glass-blowing for scientific apparatus.

At a time when the word "pregnant" was banned on network TV, the Science Review was the first to show a live birth on television. Decades before breast cancer became a subject of national scrutiny, the Review, in 1953, ran a show in which female viewers were taught how to examine their breasts for cancer, then shown a woman's chest with mastectomy scar. That show ended with the patient, a well- known pianist, playing the piano to show that the mastectomy had not damaged her playing ability. In 1952, when most Americans consigned the idea of space travel to sci-fi fantasy, the series featured a three-part series entitled "Man Will Conquer Space." Experts from Hopkins, UCLA, Princeton, and the U.S. Army explained the principles of rocket design and propulsion, showing how interplanetary travel and space stations would one day allow travel to the moon.

"If you can tear yourself away from Uncle Miltie for a minute or two, you'll be greatly surprised at the enormous variety of things they're poking into down at Johns Hopkins," wrote a reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune in 1950. The Science Review became the first American program to be seen in Europe in 1951, when the United Nations distributed kinescope recordings of the shows in 15 foreign countries. By 1952, the show was being broadcast coast-to-coast in 21 cities across the United States and in Canada. That same year the series was honored with TV's top award, the George Foster Peabody Citation, as the nation's outstanding educational television show--for the second time. It would become the only show ever to be honored twice by the Peabody committee.

"Though Hopkins scientists are not always polished performers," wrote a TIME Magazine reviewer around that time, "'Review' no longer has trouble persuading them to appear. By last week, they were receiving fan letters at the rate of 875 a week, fewer than Berle (who doesn't bother to count them anymore), but enough to suggest that there is a TV audience for something besides comics."

The mastermind behind Hopkins's entr‚e into television was Lynn Poole, an energetic man with a sharp mind and wide-ranging curiosity, who was hired in 1946 to be the university's first director of public relations.

Before coming to Hopkins, the 36-year-old Poole had started an adult and child education program at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, and had flown on 86,000 miles of bombing missions in the Pacific as public relations officer for the Air Force. During his stint in the service he also created a traveling show, Wings Over America, which debuted at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

His work in entertainment and education was to serve him well at Hopkins as he went on to become the Science Review's creator, producer, and, somewhat unexpectedly, its emcee. (Just prior to the start of the series' third show, a nervous guest professor asked Poole to stay close by in case he froze up in front of the camera. Poole's steadying presence worked so well that he became a fixture on the show.)

With his closely cropped gray hair and conservative suits, the slightly built Poole appeared to be the picture of quiet dignity and self-restraint. But he had a sporting side. During one show about insects, he opened a can of grasshoppers and ate one to assure viewers that insects are a source of food in some countries. During another show, "Human Centrifuge," he gamely allowed himself to be spun around in a chair. Reportedly green-faced, Poole barely made it through the program. When the BBC invited him to London to mark the Science Review's debut in Great Britain in 1952, Poole decided that the best way to describe the world's largest television tower was to climb partway to its top--on the air.

Though Baltimore didn't yet have its own television studio in 1946, Poole recognized the potential the new medium held for providing "good, dignified publicity" for Johns Hopkins, and for enabling the university "to carry the values of knowledge beyond the limits of our campus."

So when, in 1947, the Baltimore Sun announced that it would operate WMAR-TV, Poole was ready with some 30-minute sample science demonstrations. The station liked what it saw and agreed to work with Poole to produce eight weeks of live telecasts. These experimental shows would begin appearing throughout Baltimore in March 1948, and would be telecast out of Remsen Hall at Homewood. While there were some at the studio who suggested using professional actors, Poole was adamant: Let the scientists themselves describe and explain their work. Recognizing, however, that most viewers wanted to be entertained as they learned, the visually minded Poole had one cardinal rule: If you can't show it, don't talk about it.

In going head-to-head with Milton Berle, and later such popular shows as Gunsmoke, Dragnet, and The $64,000 Question, Poole knew he had to pull viewers in quickly, with a dramatic attention-grabber, before they were tempted to change the channel. "Are You Too Fat?" which aired in 1955, for instance, opened with a shot of a shapely young woman, clad only in a towel, climbing up on her bathroom scale. Upon seeing her weight register on the dial, she gasped in horror, throwing her hands to her mouth and dropping the towel. (She was, viewers discovered, wearing a bathing suit. This was 1955.)

In "What Is An Isotope?" in 1952, Hopkins biologist Bob Ballentine got his show off to a rousing start when he drank a beaker filled with radioactive iodine. At the program's conclusion, he told the audience, he would use a Geiger counter to see where the radioactivity had collected in his body.

"This shocked a lot of people. At that time, most people wouldn't have gotten in the same room with a radioactive isotope if they could help it. They seemed to think they would explode. When my mother found out, she went into orbit," says the 80-year-old Ballentine today, chuckling. Though his black hair has turned downy and gray and his face has loosened with wrinkles, his demeanor hasn't changed all that much from the 37-year-old who remains captured on a grainy kinescope in the university's archives.

In doing the program, Ballentine says he wanted to help temper the climate of fear that had surrounded radioactivity ever since Hiroshima, by demonstrating some positive uses. This theme was one that Hopkins TV returned to again and again, with shows like "The Atom: Beast or Benefit?" and "X- Ray: How It Works For You."

During "What Is An Isotope?" Ballentine showed how to synthesize a radiotracer (using large wooden beads to represent various molecules), then explained how these tracers could be used in medical imaging. The show's climax came when he grabbed the long wand of the Geiger counter and began training it on various parts of his body. The counter's crackling hiss reached its crescendo when he got to his neck and the thyroid gland. "There really is nothing to be afraid of in consuming doses of radioactive isotopes," Ballentine reassured the audience, then went on to explain how radioactive iodine was being used to diagnose thyroid conditions.

Looking back, the scientist says, "I'm not crazy. I had the dose mixed by the radiation health expert at the School of Medicine." He pauses as if considering, then divulges a secret he's held onto for 43 years. "I did fudge it a little. I took half the dose the night before in order to give it time to accumulate in the thyroid."

Less than a year after the program's Baltimore debut, CBS agreed to broadcast the Science Review along the East Coast, from Boston to Richmond. Thus, on December 17, 1948, Johns Hopkins became the first university to produce a weekly television program on network television.

Since little was known at that time about production techniques, Poole and the studio crew had to improvise. To show how a fly drinks, the crew glued the fly's wings to a stick, then lowered him over a dish of sugared water. They spent close to an hour experimenting with magnification and camera angles until they managed to get a screen-sized picture of the insect, as it wiggled its hairy legs and greedily dipped its proboscis into the water. When another scientist asked the crew to capture the teeming life that exists within a drop of water, the Science Review crew became the first to couple a television camera to a microscope. One of the networks was so impressed by the breakthrough that it sent an engineer to Baltimore to see just how it was done.

With live television, of course, the occasional snafu was inevitable (see "Science Review Bloopers,"). Just ask Professor Emeritus John Kopper. The chemist, as was customary, spent close to a month working out his experiments and going over the script with Poole for "What Is Electricity?" slated to be telecast on January 21, 1949. What Kopper couldn't have prepared for was the arrival of his first child, a daughter, who chose the day of the telecast to enter the world--three weeks late. The tense father-to-be learned of the happy outcome during a late afternoon dress rehearsal. After rushing to the hospital for a brief visit, he hurried back to campus, just in time for the 8:30 p.m. telecast.

But the day's stressful events weren't over yet. Several minutes into his explanation of atoms and electrons, the Remsen Hall studio went black. The power had failed. "Fortunately, the lights came back on again fairly quickly," says the 82-year-old Kopper. "I don't think I had to ad-lib for more than 10 seconds."

Since hospitals weren't equipped with TV sets in those days, Kopper's wife missed his big debut. His mother and aunt didn't, though. The two teetotalers went out to a tavern, he says, and watched it there. Kopper's eyes twinkle. "It must have been quite a sight--these two old ladies sitting there. I wonder what they ordered to drink."

Until the fall of 1950, the "Science Review" operated without a budget. That meant Poole was virtually a one-man band. He came up with ideas for shows, found the guests, wrote the scripts, dug up the necessary props and equipment, and hauled everything to the studio in a borrowed truck. Though a variety of companies offered to sponsor the program, the university declined, except for a nine-week period when the Davis Chemical Company sponsored the show locally.

Years later, Poole would tell a gathering of his fellow public relations professionals, "When we look back on those pioneer programs, we shudder." The morning after each telecast, those involved took stock of what went wrong and talked about ways to improve the next one, Poole said.

"Production shortcomings which literally have cried out for correction thus far often have robbed the program of much of its effectiveness," wrote a New York Times critic in January 1949. The critic complained that the show's explanatory charts and pictures "were much too difficult to see," and he criticized Poole's on-air persona: "The idea of casting the program's narrator as something of a dope, asking the most elementary questions, also is very far- fetched, particularly since the gentleman often lets slip an intimate knowledge of what is happening." Nevertheless, the reviewer didn't want the series abandoned. "It is too worthwhile a venture--and too important as a precedent in video--not to have every advantage."

Help was on the way. In October 1950, the series switched to the DuMont network, which invested $7,500 in 1951 to help produce 52 shows. The following year, DuMont doubled its contribution, and its local Baltimore affiliate, WAAM-TV (later to become WJZ), kicked in $10,000 to help with production, animation, and filming. The new funds enabled Poole to hire first one, and later two, assistant producers.

Though the Science Review was not aimed specifically at children, its educational component made it a natural for curious young minds. PTAs across the country placed it on recommended viewing lists, and many science teachers wrote in to say that they coordinated their lesson plans with the program. One teacher in Virginia noted that he was afraid to miss an episode, since his students inevitably bombarded him with questions the next day. Hundreds of letters poured in each week from viewers, many of them from children.

"My name is Bobby Stone and I want to be an astronomer some day," wrote one boy from Fort Wayne, Indiana, in a 1953 letter addressed to Hopkins professor Paul Hessemer. In "The Christmas Star," the astronomer had explained the miraculous Star of Bethlehem as a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Bobby quickly got down to the real point of his letter: "Would you tell me about how much money you get for being a star gazer? Is it true that an astronomer is a man who has already made his fortune and has nothing else to do?"

Perhaps the most negative viewer response came after a show in which physicist Noel Scott de-mythologized UFOs. In "What Are Flying Saucers?" Scott duplicated the conditions of the upper atmosphere in a bell jar. Then he introduced an electrical charge and created a small illuminated globule, which darted around the jar much the way a "flying saucer" might. Disgruntled viewers complained in droves, writing that they would have preferred for UFOs to remain a mystery. "You always try to explain things scientifically," huffed one woman.

In late 1955, after seven years on the air, the Johns Hopkins Science Review came to an end when DuMont went out of business. But then the ABC network jumped in with an idea for a new series. Aware of the growing need in industry for young Americans well trained in science, ABC president John Charles Daly suggested a series that focused on career possibilities in a rapidly changing world. Hopkins's new series, Tomorrow's Careers (called simply Tomorrow during its first 12 telecasts), made its debut in March 1955 and ran until June 1956.

Many of those whom Poole called on to appear were in scientific fields: "Power Engineer," "Marine Scientist," "Agricultural Chemist." But the scope of this new series was wider than before; this time around experts in fields like government, business, law, and history were invited to describe their work, make predictions about the future, and talk honestly about their salaries. "We won't be coy about the money," Poole told a New York Herald Tribune reporter shortly after the series started. "Youngsters want to know how much they will be able to afford for drapes and what kind of a car they can expect to drive."

This broader scope remained when, in the fall of 1956, Tomorrow's Careers gave way to Johns Hopkins File 7. This series took viewers behind the doors of the university to see professors at work in the arts and humanities, as well as in science and industry. Viewers could tune in to watch historian Sidney Painter describe the everyday life of a medieval knight, or art historian Adolf Katzenellenbogen discuss the "Resurrection of Christ in Art."

Quite a few episodes of File 7 went farther afield; witness two different performances by folksinging legend Pete Seeger, for instance, or the 1957 "Campus Christmas" extravaganza that featured Hopkins's 70-member glee club, a 20-voice singing group from the University of Maryland, an octet, a pianist-composer, and Hopkins President Milton S. Eisenhower.

Eisenhower evidently felt at home in front of the camera. He appeared in 18 episodes of File 7 during its five-year run, including the series' finale, "Road from Kenya." When the final credits rolled on that episode on the afternoon of May 29, 1960, Johns Hopkins University's 12- year involvement in television ended for good.

Though viewership was still high, Hopkins could no longer afford to carry the program's expenses. Production for commercial TV was becoming more elaborate--and expensive. Other priorities within the university would have to take precedence, Eisenhower announced at the conclusion of that show. He voiced the hope, however, that "this will be only an interruption, not a permanent termination." But that was not to be.

No longer faced with the frenetic pace of producing a weekly TV series, Lynn Poole was able to devote time to writing. He and his wife, Gray, a magazine writer, collaborated on more than 25 books, many of them about scientific subjects and for children. In 1969, when the couple was in California working on books about medical quackery and archaeology, Lynn Poole suffered a heart attack and died. He was 58 years old.

These days, TV buffs who are curious to see those early shows for themselves must make a trip to the University Archives, deep underground in the Milton S. Eisenhower Library at Homewood. There, floor-to-ceiling shelves hold canister after canister of the kinescope recordings.

Many of the recordings were lost before the Archives assumed responsibility for them in 1977. In fact, of the close to 500 Hopkins telecasts between 1948 and 1960, kinescope recordings today survive for only about 330 episodes. None remain from the Science Review's first two years, says archivist Brian Stimpert as he walks among the shelves.

There's worse news, judging by the faint odor of vinegar that hangs in the air--a sure sign that the cellulose ester film inside the canisters has begun to deteriorate.

Six years ago, materials science professor Susan Barger was called in to report on the condition of the kinescopes. She found a wide range of deterioration: some films were fine, while others had begun to fade and buckle. A study conducted a year later by archival technician Brian Harrington disclosed that the earliest recordings had suffered the worst shrinkage.

Preserving the kinescopes is not an inexpensive proposition, notes former archivist Julia Morgan. In a 1990 grant proposal, she estimated that it would cost roughly $250 to transfer each film to videocassette (which could then be copied and widely used) and to preserve the original kinescope through ultrasonic cleaning. The proposal didn't get funded.

Since then, in piecemeal fashion, the archivists have managed to get about 30 episodes transferred to videotape, which MSE users may now access. The remaining 300 kinescopes are stored away in their metal canisters, too brittle for use.

Robert Kargon thinks that's a shame. "Many of the people interviewed on those programs were very significant contributors to science and technology," notes the Hopkins professor of the history of science. "It's very difficult to get archival sources on these people that are visual and have sound.

"Since we have them," he says, "it would be an absolute pity to lose them."

Follow this link to Science Review Bloopers

Sue De Pasquale is the magazine's editor.

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