A long history of medical satire

Dara O’Briain is one of my favourite comedians and he frequently deals with science issues in his stand up routines. A mathematics and theoretical physics graduate, he is also the host of the BBC programmes Dara O’Briain’s Science Club and School of Hard Sums. These programmes educate viewers about maths, physics, chemistry and biology through a series of silly brainteasers and conundrums. As comedy shows they try to change the way that people think about science by making them laugh.

However, taking a light-hearted look at scientific ideas is not new and historical examples of cartoons and caricatures making fun of bad science abound. In particular, medical practitioners viewed as quack doctors – like Dara’s homeopaths – have long been a target of satirists. To read about the various ways that medical practitioners have been lampooned throughout history, check out this amusing post by Dr Mark Bryant.


Scrubs: a tale of surgical attire

Medical/Surgical Operative Photography

Medical staff wear specially designed clothing to reduce the spread of disease in hospital settings. However, this wasn’t always the case, as up until the late 1800s most doctors performed surgery whilst dressed in ordinary clothing. The “scrubs” – so called because they are worn by those who have “scrubbed up” to prepare for surgery – that we see today didn’t appear until well into the 20th century.

For centuries doctors wore ordinary clothes in operating theatres and worked bare handed with non-sterile instruments. Having to wear special surgical attire was unpopular as uniforms were associated with the lower classes, but by the 1890s surgeons started to wear surgical gowns over their clothing to protect them from bloodstains. Yet these garments did little to reduce the spread of disease as they were rarely washed and usually stained with flecks of dried blood and pus.

After World War One and the outbreak of Spanish influenza in 1918, growing acceptance of the germ theory of disease meant surgeons and their assistants began to wear gowns, caps, rubber gloves and gauze masks. However, these practices were not universally adopted and the purpose of these measures was primarily to protect surgeons from catching diseases from their patients rather than for the prevention of intra-operative infections. It wasn’t until several decades later that medical professionals began to pay greater attention to maintaining a sterile environment.

By the 1940s, advances in aseptic techniques and better understandings of the aetiology of wound infection meant that more stringent measures were put into place to reduce the spread of germs in operating theatres. Instruments and dressing were routinely sterilised with steam and having standard surgical attire became regarded as an important way to prevent post-operative infections. White was associated with sterility and cleanliness and was used for surgical gowns until it was found that the glare it caused under the bright theatre lights created eye strain for surgeons. By the 1950s, most hospitals has switched to surgical attire in jade green or ceil blue instead as those colours reduce eye fatigue and provide a high contrast against the reddish colours of body tissues and blood.

Two-piece outfits consisting of a tunic shirt and pants were introduced in the 1960s and 1970s and have remained largely unchanged since that time. Worn by both men and women, scrubs are designed to be comfortable, durable and wrinkle resistant.  Their simple design aims to limit the places that pathogens can proliferate and the cotton/polyester blend of the fabric is able to withstand laundering at high temperatures for sterilisation purposes. Scrubs are also cheap enough to be easily replaced if they become badly stained or contaminated. The medical attire worn nowadays has come a long way from the unsanitary surgical practices of previous centuries.

Image credit

Ooi, P. (2012). Medical/surgical operative photography [Image]. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/phalinn/8116024703


Belkin, N. L. (1998). Surgical scrubs – where we were, where we are going. Today’s Surgical Nurse, 20(2), 28-34.

Houweling, L. (2004). Image, function, and style: A history of the nursing uniform. American Journal of Nursing, 104(4), 40-48.

Resurrection men and anatomists


The availability of human bodies is critical to the study of anatomy. Cadavers are usually made available for research purposes through programs where people bequeath their bodies to medical schools and universities when they die. This wasn’t always the case, as during the 18th and early 19th centuries bodies were illegally procured for dissection.

The rapid growth of the biological sciences during this period was matched with an increased demand for human cadavers for dissections in medical schools and anatomy demonstrations. Up until the early 19th century in the United Kingdom the only legal means of securing corpses for anatomical research by was claiming the bodies of those condemned to death and dissection by the courts. As only those who committed the most serious felonies were sentenced to this fate only a few bodies were made available to anatomists each year and there was a severe shortage of cadavers.

Spotting a lucrative market in the trade of human bodies, people took to stealing the bodies of the recently deceased from fresh graves and selling them to medical schools. They would dig up the head end of a recent burial under the cover of night, break open the coffin, tie a rope around the neck of the corpse and pull it out. They earned the nicknames “resurrectionists” or “resurrection men”. As stealing from cemeteries was not a crime that was punished harshly in courts and many medical schools were willing to pay handsome sums for bodies there was a significant incentive for criminals to engage in body snatching.

Many people feared dissection as it was believed that the soul of a person who had been dismembered was unable to enter Heaven in the afterlife. The prevalence of body snatching caused fear amongst the pubic and people went to extreme lengths to prevent the bodies of their loved ones from ending up on anatomists’ dissecting tables. Often times, the friends and relatives of someone who had died would watch over their grave day and night until the point that the body would have decayed and become useless for medical dissection. In other cases, people were buried in heavy iron coffins or cages called mortsafes that were built around graves to prevent their contents from being exhumed.

In Britain, a spate of murders committed to obtain fresh bodies to sell to medical schools led to the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832. This Act permitted unclaimed bodies and those donated by relatives to be used in the study of anatomy. It also regulated anatomy instruction through a licensing system that monitored private medical schools. By regulating an increased supply of corpses for scientific research this legislation finally brought the practice of grave robbing to an end.

Image credit

Knight Browne, H. (1847). Resurrectionists [Image]. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Resurrectionists_in_the_United_Kingdom#mediaviewer/File:Resurrectionists_by_phiz.png


Quigley, C. (2012). Dissection on display: cadavers, anatomists and public spectacle. Jefferson: McFarland & Co.

“More doctors smoke Camels”: tobacco adverts from the 1940s and 1950s

1946 Ad, Camel Cigarettes, The Smoking Choice of Doctors

Today health campaigns warn of the harmful effects of smoking. Yet in the mid-20th century American tobacco companies ran advertising campaigns that did the opposite.

During the 1940s and 1950s most Americans (including doctors) smoked but there were rising public concerns about the possible health risks of tobacco. In response, cigarette manufacturers heavily marketed their products stating otherwise. Tobacco companies concerned about falling sales released newspaper editorials, magazine spreads and even television adverts featuring images of medical professionals to imply that doctors endorsed smoking and thus reassure consumers that their products were safe.

In 1946 the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company – producer of Camel cigarettes – began an advertising campaign that became instantly recognisable through the tagline, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” The not-so-subtle message was that if a doctor chose to smoke that particular brand of cigarettes then they must be safe.

Adverts involved representations of middle aged male doctors who were dedicated to their patients to emphasise the respectability of the profession. You’ll see that in the picture above the initials M and D are highlighted in red to accentuate the qualifications and expertise of physicians. R. J. Reynolds also managed to avoid facing possible litigation through the clever word choice of the slogan. By stating that doctors simply preferred Camels over other brands, the company was able to address the public’s health concerns without directly making false claims that that they were healthier than other cigarettes.

Unlike celebrity endorsements, cigarette promotions with medical imagery never showed real doctors. As they were prohibited from appearing in advertisements in order to retain their licences tobacco companies were forced to use actors instead. However, physicians and their professional organisations were complicit in the tobacco industry’s attempts to downplay the harmful effects of smoking.

Prominent medical journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association derived a large proportion of their income from tobacco advertorials in the pages of their publications and had been doing so for decades. Physicians also claimed in surveys to prefer the brand over others after being bribed with complimentary Camel cigarettes at medical conferences and conventions.

This aggressive promotional strategy saw Camels become a leading brand of cigarettes in the United States. Tobacco consumption in America was shaped by powerful corporations who dedicated huge budgets to advertising in order to manipulate consumer tastes.

However, by the early 1950s suggestions that smoking cigarettes was safe or healthy were no longer credible. Compelling evidence showed that tobacco was responsible for a raft of health complaints and in 1953 the link between lung cancer and smoking was made clear. Medical associations quickly severed ties with tobacco companies and fictitious physicians singing the praises of Camel cigarettes disappeared from the pages of journals and tobacco companies were forced to shift to subtle product placement to keep sales high. After running for 8 years, the R. J. Reynolds “more doctors” campaign finally ended in 1954.

The Stanford School of Medicine has a great online collection of vintage smoking advertisements if you’d like to see more examples. Also take a look at the fantastic book by medical historian Allan M. Brandt called The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America. 

Image credit

R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. (1946). Camel cigarettes: the smoking choice of doctors [Image]. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/29069717@N02/11984742233


Gardner, M. N, & Brandt, A. M. (2006). “The doctors’ choice is America’s choice”: the physician in US cigarette advertisements 1930-1953. American Journal of Public Health, 96(2), 222-232. Retrieved from JSTOR.

Samji, H. A., & Jackler, R. J. (2008). “Not one single case of throat irritation”: misuse of the image of the otolarygnologist in cigarette advertising. The Larygnoscope, 118(3), 415-427. Retrieved from Wiley Online Library.

White, C., Oliffe, J. L., & Bottorff, J. L. (2012). From the physician to the Marlboro man: masculinity, health, and cigarette advertising in America 1946-1964. Men and Masculinities, 15(5), 526-547. Retrieved from JSTOR.