Historical essay
Tuning In for Public Health: The Promise of Televised Health Education in 1950s America

Tuning In for Public Health: The Promise of Televised Health Education in 1950s America

During a recent well-child check up, the nurse asked how much television my son watched. Although not common a generation ago, this question is now part of the routine examination. Along with asking about our kids’ diets and daily exercise, we are also asked about their television viewing habits. There seems to be a general consensus among 21st century American health practitioners that TV, at least too much of it, is bad for your health. History loves irony, however, and those who now caution against too much television, health professionals, once saw it as an exciting and important new medium. Beginning in the 1950s, many health advocates perceived television as a way of using technology for widespread health education. So promising was this new mass media that one health advocate wondered if public health agencies could “afford not to consider using TV as a medium for disseminating health information to the public.”[1]

But how could public health advocates use television to get their messages out? That was the question many American health agencies began asking in the 1950s, a time when technological innovation and post-war prosperity and consumerism combined to make television a home necessity. Although television had been available to limited audiences since the early 1940s, it wasn’t until after World War II that TV began making its way into vast numbers of American homes. In 1950, for example, the city of Baltimore had 20,000 television viewers out of a 1.3 million population. In early 1951 viewership increased to 40,000, and by late 1952 125,000 were gathering around televisions.

Television has had a profound influence on American society, and some public health advocates saw it as the perfect medium for improving the nation’s health. Joseph Gordon, author of the above quotation and Director of the Bureau of Health Information for the Baltimore City Health Department, even went so far as to say that televised health education performed “a definite need for the citizen.”[2]

"Family watching television," ca. 1958. (Evert F. Baumgardner/National Archives and Records Administration. Licensed public domain.)
“Family watching television,” ca. 1958. (Evert F. Baumgardner/National Archives and Records Administration. Licensed public domain.)

The Baltimore City Health Department was among the first to experiment with TV, beginning in 1948 with a fifteen minute weekly series called, “Your Family Doctor.” The Baltimore City Health Department, the Maryland state medical society, and local TV station, WMAR-TV, jointly sponsored the experimental program, with each sponsor fulfilling a necessary production role. The Health Department headed up the planning and programming, while the medical society provided consultants who served as script advisors or on-air guests. WMAR-TV donated airtime and personnel as a public service, though the arrangement served them well by attracting viewers.

Eventually, the Baltimore City Health Department conducted a study to evaluate the prominence of health education via television on a nationwide basis. In 1951 the agency sent questionnaires to all active TV stations in the country, over a hundred in all. By the end of the study, sixty-four stations returned the questionnaires, and twenty-eight of those who responded indicated that, although they did not currently carry regular public health education programs, they would be interested in doing so if the programs were sponsored by a health agency.[3] Television stations too, it seemed, saw the promise in offering health education.

The “At Home With Your Child” series in Pittsburgh, PA, focused on providing caregivers, primarily mothers, childrearing advice for children from birth through age five. In the second episode, “The New Baby Comes Home,” viewers listened to a physician discuss the physical characteristics and typical behaviors of a newborn and of a six-week-old baby, and watched a public health nurse demonstrate caregiving on a doll. In subsequent episodes, viewers learned about feeding and formula making, well-baby visits, crawling and first steps, and preparing children for school with audio and visual screening tests.

Along with instructions on the care of young children, the “At Home with Your Child,” series also demonstrated gender and professional norms, mirroring the norms expected outside of TV land. The actor-physician who served as narrator appeared on each episode to provide his (yes, always “his”) professional opinion, while the on-set nurse did most of the demonstrations. In “Baby Gets a Bath” the physician discussed the importance of clean skin and a public health nurse bathed a two-month-old baby while he spoke. Generally, the physician and the children met for the first time on-set, but nurses sometimes met with the children beforehand. In “Baby Gets a Bath,” for example, the public health nurse and the infant featured in the episode met several times before the day of taping. The nurse bathed the child at home before filming the episode so that the two would be familiar with one another.

Still from Nursing, part of Vocational Guidance Films, Inc.'s "Your Life Work" series, produced by Holmes (Burton) Films, Inc., 1942. (Internet Archive Prelinger Archives. Licensed public domain.)
Still from Nursing, part of Vocational Guidance Films, Inc.’s “Your Life Work” series, produced by Holmes (Burton) Films, Inc., 1942. (Internet Archive Prelinger Archives. Licensed public domain.)

Nurses on public health programs bathed the babies, changed the diapers, prepared formula, and conducted the majority of touch work on set. The physician was to be the expert. He (or at least his TV persona) expected the nurse to dutifully follow his instructions while providing practical demonstrations to the mothers in the audience. This labor division mirrored the real life expectations of physician and nurse. The program also reflected beliefs about child development and behavior. Infants were either completely undressed or wearing only a diaper for demonstrations. Children older than two years old, however, were fully dressed because “their emerging sense of modesty might otherwise have provoked unnatural behavior.” Best to keep little Johnny from playing with himself while cameras were rolling.

After the series aired, the Pittsburgh Health Department wanted to know more about the audience of “At Home With Your Child.” Who, they wondered, was watching?

Before collecting data, the Pittsburgh study made a few assumptions about their viewership. The Pittsburgh series focused on childcare and childrearing, and the researchers assumed all viewers of these programs to be mothers. They wanted their study sample to include only mothers and, since the series focused on health education from birth through age five, preferred mothers of preschool children. This request, however, turned out to be too exclusive; researchers could not find enough mothers of preschool children who had watched the televised programs to complete an adequate sample group. So the researchers expanded the survey to recent mothers in the city of Pittsburgh, obtained through live-birth certificates for the twelve months preceding the close of the televised series.[4] Tellingly, researchers omitted from their sample not only those birth certificates of children who died in infancy, but also “extramarital children.” Only the opinions of normative, wedded mothers, it seemed, counted. Although researchers omitted unwed mothers, they did not discriminate based on other demographic information, such as race and income level. Once health officials had their sample, they mailed out questionnaires and waited for responses.

[gpullquote]Researchers omitted from their sample not only those birth certificates of children who died in infancy, but also “extramarital children.”[/gpullquote]

Within two weeks, replies began coming in. The response rate was quite high, with slightly more than 70% of questionnaires returned. Researchers found that the highest response rates came from older, white, middle-class mothers. This was good news to the health advocates who designed the surveys. They believed that, since public health information, services, and in-home nurse visits were restricted to those with the greatest need, namely those with “intensive service needs” and low-income homes, television programs could reach a different demographic. The data from the survey demonstrated that middle- and higher-income parents, those who had private physicians and those who didn’t traditionally use public health services for their primary healthcare needs, “welcome[d] further information on childcare, especially through mass media.”[5] Through television, public health agencies believed they could reach a wider, not to mention whiter and wealthier, audience. Just looking at the episode titles of this series, it became clear just who health advocates targeted as their audience. Although programmers kept the “Mother’s Night Out” episode, an audience favorite, they omitted the “Community Help for Families” episode because it “was not considered germane to a growth and development series.”[6] Good mothers needed help getting a break once in a while; they did not, however, need help getting a handout.

Whether or not public health departments’ attempts at television specifically targeted whiter, wealthier audiences, all wanted to ensure their programming made for good television. Public Health had gone Hollywood, merging health education and entertainment for the conspicuous consumption of American audiences.

Richard Boone, who played Dr. Konrad Styner, the narrator of NBC's Medic TV series (1954-1956)." (Ursula Halloran & Associates/Wikimedia Commons. Licensed public domain.)
Richard Boone, who played Dr. Konrad Styner, the narrator of NBC’s Medic TV series (1954-1956).” (Ursula Halloran & Associates/Wikimedia Commons. Licensed public domain.)

One way that health TV made its programming entertaining was by utilizing scripts and actors. In 1962, Esther D. Schultz, assistant professor of public health nursing at the School of Nursing at the University of California at Los Angeles argued that television “brings drama to clinic patients.”[7] In the Baltimore series “Your Family Doctor,” studio personnel wrote the scripts with guidance from health professionals, and programming executives preferred that people with dramatic experience appeared in the program, though if that was not possible then city health department officials often volunteered. An actor played “Dr. John Wothrington,” the primary character and narrator for the “Your Family Doctor” series, while the unnamed “office nurse” who assisted him in various episodes was generally played by a public health nurse from the Health Department.

Despite the interest of health departments, and the relative audience approval of the programs, televised health education never really took off in a major way. This may have been due to changing cultural perspectives on television, which saw television as a safe, family-centered activity during a time of post-war anxiety. By the 1980s, Americans had become much more suspicious of television consumption, epitomized by the image of the “latchkey kid” whose babysitter was the family TV. Televised public health education did not go away completely, however. Instead of full programs, health departments reverted back to the short, easily digestible Public Service Announcement.


[1] Joseph Gordon, “Health Education via Television: ‘Your Family Doctor,'” Public Health Reports (1896-1970) 68, no. 8  (August, 1953): 820.

[2] Gordon, “Health Education via Television,” 816.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ann B. Wagner and Mary Ellen Patno, “The Use of TV Programs to Educate Parents in Child Care,” Public Health Reports (1896-1970) 71, no. 8 (August, 1956): 780-786.

[5] Wagner and Patno, “The Use of TV Programs,” 786.

[6] Ibid., 782.

[7] Esther D. Schultz, “Television Brings Drama to Clinic Patients,” The American Journal of Nursing 62, no. 8 (August, 1962): 98-99.

For Further Reading

Apple, Rima D. Perfect Motherhood: Science and Childrearing in America. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006.

Edgerton, Gary R. The Columbia History of American Television. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Grant, Julia. Raising Baby By the Book: The Education of American Mothers. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, 1990.

Feature image: Still frame from the show Medic, an episode titled “General Practitioner” that aired June 13, 1955 (Season 1, Episode 28). (Internet Archive Classic Television Collection. Licensed public domain.)

Meggan Woodbury Bilotte is a co-founder of Nursing Clio. Originally from Wyoming, she is now one of the many transplants to call Madison, Wisconsin home. She is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as a mother, a partner, a teacher, and a student of the world. In her academic life she studies midwifery, motherhood, and modernity in the American West. In her home life she studies crayon drawings and the physics of flying kisses.