Making history

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Making History: Lessons from the Great Moments Series of Pharmaceutical Advertisements
Jonathan M. Metzl, MD, PhD, and Joel D. Howell, MD, PhD
ABSTRACT The authors shed light on present-day pharmaceutical advertisements by looking back to an important early chapter in pharmaceutical company–sponsored promotion: the Great Moments inMedicine and Great Moments in Pharmacy, a series of commercial paintings produced by Parke, Davis & Company between 1948 and 1964. Beginning in the early 1950s, Parke-Davis delivered reproductions of the Great Moments images to physicians and pharmacies throughout the United States and Canada and funded monthly pullout facsimiles in key national magazines. The images also appeared in calendars, popularmagazines, and “educational” brochures. By the mid1960s, articles in both the popular and the medical press lauded the Great Moments for “changing the face of the American doctor’s office” while describing the painter, Robert Thom, as the “Norman Rockwell” of medicine. The authors’ brief analysis uses source material including popular articles about the Great Moments, existing scholarship,previously unexamined artist’s notes, and, ultimately, the images themselves to explain why these seemingly kitschy paintings attained such widespread acclaim. They show how the Great Moments tapped into a 1950s medical climate when doctors were thought of as powerfully independent practitioners, pharmaceutical companies begged the doctor’s good graces, and HMOs and health plans were nowhere to be seen.The authors conclude by suggesting that the images offer important lessons for thinking about the many pharmaceutical advertisements that confront present-day doctors, patients, and other consumers. Acad Med. 2004;79:1027–1032.

etween 1948 and 1964, Parke-Davis Pharmaceuticals commissioned portrait artist Robert Thom to create a series of 85 oil paintings entitled Great Moments in Medicine andGreat Moments in Pharmacy.1 The expressed purpose of these images was to memorialize highlights in the histories of medicine and pharmacy from antiquity to the “present day.” As explained by George Bender, Thom’s collaborator and a Parke-Davis pharmacist, the Great Moments paintings depicted stories of outstanding persons and events whose contributions “moved medicine

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Dr. Metzl is assistantprofessor of psychiatry and women’s studies and director, Program in Culture, Health, and Medicine, University of Michigan (UM), Ann Arbor, Michigan. Dr. Howell is Victor Vaughn Collegiate Professor of the History of Medicine; professor, Departments of Internal Medicine, History, and Health Management and Policy; co-director, Clinical Scholars Program; and director, Program in Society andMedicine, UM. Correspondence should be addressed to Dr. Metzl, Program in Culture, Health, and Medicine, University of Michigan, 2203 Lane Hall, 204 S. State St. Ann Arbor, MI, 48109-1290, telephone: (734) 647-0782, fax: (734) 764-9533; e-mail: jmetzl@umich.edu .

forward” while providing a medium through which doctors, pharmacists, and the general public could reach a better understanding of “whatadvances in medicine, throughout the centuries, meant to the better health and welfare of our modern-day civilization.”2 Starting in 1951, Parke-Davis distributed boxed sets of reproductions to physicians throughout the United States and Canada and subsidized monthly inserts of each image in Modern Pharmacy magazine.2,3 Prints with subject matter ranging from “Avicenna: The ‘Persian Galen’ ” to“Pasteur: The Chemist Who Transformed Medicine” (Figure 1) to “Rontgen: Invisible Rays That Save Lives” soon adorned the ¨ walls of countless waiting rooms, pharmacies, and private homes. The images, which were widely reproduced in calendars, popular magazines, and educational brochures, became the subjects of a full-length promotional movie that explained the “story behind the story” by retracing the...
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