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Behind the picture: Charles Fletcher as the first TV doctor

by Guest Author on 26 May 2017

Nowadays few people would dispute that it’s important for people to know about medical matters, but that wasn’t always the case. While our Max Perutz Science Writing Award is open to MRC-funded PhD students, Katherine Nightingale looks back at Charles Fletcher, MRC researcher and physician, whose strong belief in medical communication led him to become the first ‘TV doctor’ in the 1950s.

Operation being filmed by the BBC

Operation being filmed by the BBC (Image courtesy of Lothian Health Services Archive, ref GD28/8/2/10)

 

You don’t notice it at first – your eye is drawn instead to the strangely bandaged faces of the people to the left of the image. But there, together with the IV stand, scissors and scrubs, is not a piece of surgical equipment but a 1950s television camera and lights.

What’s it doing there? Filming a medical drama? Broadcasting the television news live from a hospital? Not quite. Instead it’s the filming of Your Life in Their Hands, a controversial medical documentary which began in 1958.

The programme beamed discussions of treatments – and on occasion, actual operations – into the nation’s homes. The aim was to inform the public about medical conditions and demonstrate modern medical treatments, with the first series of ten episodes including topics as diverse as radiotherapy and treatment for head injuries.

It was presented by Charles Fletcher, a doctor and epidemiologist whose career was intertwined with the MRC from its early stages. He also happened to be the son of our first chief executive – then known as secretary – Sir Walter Morley Fletcher.

Charles’s long and varied career put him centre stage in a remarkable number of significant events in medical history. As a house officer at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford in 1941 he gave the first injection of penicillin to a patient. His tenure as head of the MRC Pneumoconiosis Research Unit in Cardiff between 1945 and 1952 led research which discovered how pneumoconiosis could be prevented in miners. And in 1962 he edited the Royal College of Physicians’ seminal report on the dangers of smoking for health.

His life away from science was equally varied. Educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, he rowed in the winning Cambridge boat in the 1933 boat race, dabbled in amateur dramatics during his medical education, and sang in a choir.

A radical thinker

 Charles at his presenter’s desk

A still from Your Life in Their Hands showing Charles at his presenter’s desk (BBC/Wellcome Library, London)

 

But it’s his passion for medical communication that we’re interested in here. Despite his privileged upbringing, Charles was something of a radical thinker – a supporter of the NHS at a time when many doctors were against it and a member of the Socialist Medical Association. He was a strong believer in people having knowledge of medicine and their own health, in sharp contrast to the paternalism many of his colleagues would have practised.

For example, at the time it was commonplace for doctors not to reveal diagnoses to patients, a fact that seems startling today.

Nowadays we’re used to doctors as presenters on television programmes explaining the latest research and techniques. Charles began advising on, and presenting, some one-off and short-run documentaries during the 1950s, becoming the first presenter of Your Life in Their Hands in 1958.

Perhaps drawing upon his interest in the theatre, Charles was a confident and reassuring screen presence. The technology to record video wasn’t yet available, so he would hand over to doctors explaining diseases and procedures live, and patients talking about their illnesses, in hospitals around the country.

The secret code

The show had a largely positive response from the public and the press. But it drew criticism from doctors, including accusations that Charles was seeking personal publicity as well as “destroying the mystique of medicine” by pulling back the curtain on a world that many health professionals were content to keep hidden from patients.

“They said it was improper, that it would cause hypochondria and frighten people,” Charles told the British Journal of Addiction in 1992. “Here was somebody breaching the secret code that doctors thought was their own.”

His involvement in the programme even put his career at risk, with his then boss suggesting he would not be put forward for promotion if he continued. “But I felt I couldn’t leave it mid-stream.” “I thought its benefits were going to be greater than any harm it might do,” he said.

The programme has periodically returned to our screens, including a long run in the 1980s with Professor Lord Robert Winston as presenter.

Charles remained interested in communication in the latter part of his career, being awarded a Rock-Carling Fellowship in 1972 on ‘communication in medicine’ and the public understanding medical care.

Katherine Nightingale

Further reading

Your Life in Their Hands, The Lancet, 2006

Conversation with Charles Fletcher, British Journal of Addiction, 1992

Pioneering Physician: The Life of Charles Fletcher 1911-1995, Max Blythe, 2016

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