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1950 / 10:18
National Tuberculosis Association.
Sound, color.

Disease Vectors of Cartoon Modernity

Kathy High (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

Michael Sappol, PhD (National Library of Medicine)

The opening credits show the word 'Rodney' on a billboard next to a highway.
National Tuberculosis Association, Rodney.
All stills reprinted with permission, © 2011 American Lung Association.

It's 1950 and a fine upstanding teenager named Rodney is stricken with the deadly tuberculosis bacterium (Mycobacterium tuberculosis). But rest assured—and rest he will, in a tuberculosis hospital—science is on top of the disease.

The early 1950s was a time of high anxiety in American culture. The United States and its allies had won the world war, but after the Soviets exploded their atomic bomb in 1949, fears of nuclear war began to proliferate, along with some undefinable unease about the consequences of scientific progress. Yet the 1950s was also a time of optimism, when many believed that you could overcome anything by adopting a positive attitude and taking timely action.

And so this cartoon is both happy and haunted—by the threat of illness and attack. Stark posters of a dark profiled man and woman, with the legend "Have a Chest X-Ray," loom strategically in background storefront windows as Rodney happily strolls down the sidewalks of his town.

Because TB is an invader within. Like the great science fiction films of the 1950s - such as The Man from Planet X, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers—Rodney plays off cultural dread and suspicion of the Other.

That Other could be people of a different social class or ethnicity. At one point Rodney (who lives in an all-American small town) says to his doctor that he thought only people who live in the slums get TB. The doctor counters, almost poignantly, "Germs don't know one person from another." Tuberculosis, it turns out, is a modern, democratic disease. Even white middle-class people get it, and it's nobody's fault. With the defeat of Nazism and its racial ideology, and in the aftermath of the genocide that killed six million Jews, there was a changed climate of opinion in America: discrimination is wrong. Disease is the enemy and people are not diseases.

Rodney and his doctor look at an anatomical chart showing a man’s lungs and respiratory system. Rodney's modernist cartoon animation renderings of cars, people, lungs, bacterial invasion, diagnostic technology, and treatment methods capture a moment in post-World- War-II American life and medicine when everything felt modern. The main vector of modernity is the X-ray. (The National Tuberculosis Association com­missioned Rodney for a campaign to encourage mass and individual X-ray screening.) A few years later the emphasis would shift to anti­biotics, but Rodney takes place on the doorstep of the antibiotic revolution: drug treatment of tuberculosis had already been invented but only became practicable in 1952, when isoniazid, the first oral mycobactericidal drug, was created. Rodney makes no mention of antibiotics—and, surprisingly, only one fleeting mention of the tuberculin test.

There is another vector of modernity: the motion picture itself, made in a contemporary idiom that powerfully communicates to the public. And the messages are: See your doctor regularly (and get regular chest X-rays). If he says you have TB (which may not be evident), listen to your doctor and go to a "modern tuberculosis hospital," where you will rest and recover and be isolated until you no longer pose a danger to your family and community. If that doesn't do the trick, the fatherly doctor explains, surgery to collapse a lobe of the lung will give it even more rest. Happily that turns out to be unnecessary in Rodney's case.

Lu Guarnier (1914–2007), director of Rodney, was an exponent of the new modernist cartoon animation of the 1940s and early ’50s. Cartoon modernism emphasized abstraction, bold lines, dynamic distortion, and the elimination of unnecessary detail. The new style was economical (it required fewer cells and less drawing per cell) and brought visual elements from cubism, surrealism, art deco, minimalism, even abstract expressionism to the mass movie and television audience. Stills from Rodney reprinted with permission, © 2011 American Lung Association.

Kathy High is an interdisciplinary artist working in the areas of technology, science, speculative fiction and art. She produces videos and installations posing queer and feminist inquiries into areas of medicine/bio-science, and animal/interspecies collaborations. She hosts bio/ecology+art workshops and is creating an urban nature center in North Troy (NATURE Lab) with media organization The Sanctuary for Independent Media. High is Professor of Video and New Media in the Department of Arts, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. She teaches documentary and experimental digital video production, history and theory, as well as biological arts.

Michael Sappol is a historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine, editor of Hidden Treasure and the author of A Traffic of Dead Bodies.

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