When Television Was a Medical Device

  • 2017-06-08
  • The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities

The practice of medical care at a distance was not new to the 1960s. As far back as the Middle Ages, many European physicians had received the stories of their patients’ ills in the form of letters—often accompanied by a flask of urine for diagnostic testing—and they offered their prescriptions and prognoses without any face-to-face interaction. Other forms of epistolary medicine continued well into the twentieth century, and continue to flourish in the twenty-first century practice of e-mail medicine.

But the advent of closed-circuit and cable television in the postwar decades precipitated a new wave of attention to the visualizing potential of electronic media. Television was initially known as a broadcast medium that was dominated by the three major networks. By 1966, however, cable TV promised a more interactive network of screens, cameras, and users. As the instantaneity of two-way television opened up different possibilities for virtual presence, medicine became an important spot for imagining the benefits of a newly “wired nation.” Interactive television might make it possible to conduct a physical exam, review an X-ray or a microscopic blood specimen, or even provide psychotherapy in real time for patients situated hundreds of miles from their doctors.