Countway History of Medicine Collection Highlight: Video and Transcript: The Facts of Medicine 36: “Overweight”:
“…One of the worst offenders are the sweets we take in the form of soft drinks or the carbohydrate we take in with our beer; these are very important things that add weight and I think these are things that can easily be avoided.”
In 1956, David Rutstein brought the problem of a sedentary lifestyle, poor eating habits, and soda consumption to the public’s attention via a radical new communication tool: public television. In its infancy, public television stations like Boston’s WGBH were struggling for content and turned to a local resource —Harvard University — for help. “The Facts of Medicine” was funded by an educational grant from the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. to Harvard and the Lowell Institute, and it featured Dr. Rutstein, head of the Dept. of Preventive Medicine, in a 40-part series, “which has few predecessors in the world of telecast. Through these carefully planned programs, President [Nathan Marsh] Pusey announced, “we hope to make it possible for the individual to understand the nature of recent medical developments and to help him reach wise decisions, in consultation with his own physician, on matters affecting his own health and that of his family and his community.” It was one of the first uses of television to inform the public about local and national health concerns and current research, the model for many shows that came afterwards.
About those early days of public television Michael Ambrosino, one of WGBH’s pioneering employees, wrote, “Think small. Think live. Think black and white and no money.” While he was referring to the station’s programming more generally, it’s a perfect description of “The Facts of Medicine” – just Rutstein, an interviewer (Fred Soper), a desk, a blackboard, and a piece of chalk. Despite the homespun approach, Rutstein managed to impress his audience. In addition to pointing to soda and alcohol as the enemies of the “reducing diet”, he directly linked smoking to cancer. In his online memoir, Ambrosino notes, “This was 1956! No one in the media was talking about that” (http://wgbhalumni.org/2007/06/29/skating-around-the-rink/, posted June 20, 2007).
David Davis Rutstein (1909-1986), S.B., 1930, Harvard College; M.D., 1934, Harvard Medical School, joined the faculty at Harvard Medical School in 1947 as Professor of Preventive Medicine and was head of the Department of Preventive Medicine until 1969. In 1966, he was appointed the Ridley Watts Professor of Preventive Medicine, and held that position until his retirement in 1975. He played a national role in the organization of medical care, the integration of preventive medicine into the care of individual patients, and the measurement of medical outcomes. In the 1960s he directed a study on forming health maintenance programs, lobbied for a change in state laws regarding birth control for the poor, and advocated the use of nurse midwives for delivery. Some of his later studies with the United States Veteran’s Administration were on the genetic basis of alcoholism and on standards of health care.
An electronic finding aid to the Rutstein collection is available here: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HMS.Count:med00137.
More of the ‘Facts of Medicine’ videos and transcripts will become available later in 2012 at the Center for the History of Medicine’s Onview site: http://collections.countway.harvard.edu/onview/.
Special thanks to Kathryn Hammond Baker from the Center for the History of Medicine at Countway Library for collaboration with this piece.