Under the Knife

Above: Surgery being performed at the Hospital of Saint Raphael (Conn.) in the late 1930s. Operating rooms were often located near large windows and under skylights to offer greater illumination. (Yale New Haven Hospital)

For all the challenges of 21st century, I always remind myself that advances in medicine during the past ninety years have made our lives better, and substantially longer, even if our current health care system is far from ideal.

Feb. 3, 1934 cover by E. Simms Campbell.

People could live to a ripe old age in the 1930s, however the average life expectancy at birth in 1930 was only 58 for men and 62 for women. The Depression didn’t help matters, and neither did the Dust Bowl, unregulated urban smog, the dramatic rise in smoking, and the lingering effects of more than a decade of bootleg alcohol consumption.

Polio was a serious problem in the 1930s, as was syphilis, which affected as many as ten percent of Americans. Blood groups would not be identified until 1930 (by Nobel Prize-winner Karl Landsteiner), and human nutrition remained something of a puzzle—Vitamin C wasn’t identified until 1932. There was exciting chatter about penicillin (discovered in late 1920s) and the antibacterial effects of sulfonamides (first observed in 1932), but it would be years before antibiotics would come into common use. So yes, infection was also a big killer.

Nevertheless, progress had been made, as told by Morris Markey in the column, “A Reporter at Large.” An excerpt:

FORTRESS ON THE HEIGHTS…Top, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center loomed large when it opened in Washington Heights in 1928; below, New York Hospital, most likely the building described in Morris Markey’s column; at left, Dr. George Crile, Sr., completing his landmark 25,000th thyroid operation in 1936. (CUIMC/Wikipedia/Cleveland Clinic)

This next excerpt describes the work of the anesthetist after the patient receives a spinal injection of novocaine, which had replaced cocaine as a pain blocker. At the start of the 1930s, the most-used anesthetic was ether, used in this account to calm the patient. Ether carried its own risks—in was unstable, and sparks from X-ray machines and other equipment could cause an explosion.

NO SMOKING, PLEASE…Anesthetist in the 1920s carefully administers ether while surgeon swabs a patient with iodine (inset). Ether was unstable, and sparks from equipment could cause an explosion. (Internet Archive/Flickr)

 * * *

And Then There’s Maude

American actress and stage designer Maude Ewing Adams (1872–1953) defined the role of “the boy who wouldn’t grow up” in her Broadway adaptations of Peter Pan in the early 1900s (1905, 1906, 1912 and 1915). She would appear in 26 Broadway productions between 1888 and 1916, but after a severe bout of the Spanish flu in 1918 she retired from the stage and focused on developing better stage lights with General Electric; her electric lights ultimately set the industry standard with the advent of sound movies. As this excerpt from “The Talk of the Town” revealed, Adams was also quite shy and highly valued her privacy.

THE RETIRING SORT…Maud Adams in a Broadway publicity photo, circa 1900. (Vintage Everyday)

* * *

In The Trenches

Just before the Nazis decided to turn their country back into a warlike state, Victor Trivas and George Shdanoff wrote and directed an allegorical anti-war film. Niemandsland (released in the U.S. as Hell on Earth) featured five soldiers, from different backgrounds, who find themselves together in a dugout in no man’s land and together come to terms with the absurdity of war. The film premiered in Berlin in December 1931 and was greeted by thunderous applause. A little over a year later it was banned by the Nazis. Critic John Mosher made these observations:

WAR, WHAT’S IT GOOD FOR?Niemandsland (released in the U.S. as Hell on Earth) featured five soldiers from different backgrounds on a front lines during WWI: a carpenter from Berlin, a mechanic from Paris, an English officer, a Jewish tailor and a Black dancer (the only one who understands everyone’s languages). Actor and dancer Louis W. Douglas (top right) was a Philadelphia native who moved to Paris in 1925 with his dancing partner, Josephine Baker, in the popular La Revue Nègre. He went on to establish a successful musical and film career in Germany until his death in 1939. (silverinahaystack.wordpress.com/IMDB)

 * * *

From Our Advertisers

We begin with this jolly color image from Lucky Strike representing the joys of cigarette smoking…

…a trio of ads culled from the back pages, everything from “Tiara Trouble” (apparently a common problem) to a smoking penguin introducing a new line of menthol cigarettes, KOOL, challenging the dominance of the Spud menthol brand (we know who won that battle)…in the final ad, Atlantic City resort hotel Haddon Hall attempted to drum up business using a slavery/emancipation theme—Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is at hand…why not slip the shackles of work and run away to sunshine and freedom?

…These Paul Whiteman ads were ubiquitous in the 1930s…the distinctive caricature of his pudgy, mustachioed face—Whiteman’s “Potato Head” emblem—was featured in ads and on 78 rpm record labels and various promotional items…on the more classical side, violinist David Rubinoff sawed away on his famed $100,000 Stradivarius for audiences at the Roosevelt Hotel…

…automobile ads continued to grace the pages of The New Yorker, including this one suggesting that young blue bloods would look quite smart in a ’34 Chevy…

…in the 1930s Studebaker marketed car lines including the high-end President, the mid-priced Commander, and the low-priced Dictator…the Dictator was introduced in 1927, so named because it “dictated the standard” other automobile makes would be obliged to follow…the rise of Mussolini and Hitler attached unsavory connotations to the car’s moniker…it was renamed “Director” for European markets and was finally abandoned in 1937…

…Chrysler continued to push its radical new Airflow, here demonstrating how it blows the doors off of an old-timer…

…as we jump into our cartoons, Kemp Starrett referenced the Airflow in his latest contribution to The New Yorker

…the issue included two from George Price…a playful pairing in the events section…

…and a somewhat unkind nod to new Hollywood star Katharine Hepburn…apparently David O. Selznick had misgivings about casting a “horse face” like her…well, she obviously proved him wrong…

…the magazine pulled out this old illustration by H.O. Hofman to break up the copy in Howard Brubaker’s “Of All Things” column…

…more antics from the precocious set, courtesy Perry Barlow

Mary Petty offered this observation on the state of medicine in 1934…

…a sobering and topical contribution from Alan Dunn

Carl Rose made preparations for the annual Charity Ball…

…and James Thurber gave us Part III of his “War Between Men and Women”…

Next Time: Made in Germany…


Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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