Film/Video/TV Annotations


Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet


MediumFilm
KeywordsChildren, Empathy, Family Relationships, History of Medicine, History of Science, Infectious Disease, Medical Advances, Medical Research, Physician Experience, Professionalism, Science, Society, Technology, Tuberculosis
Summary

Paul Ehrlich (Edward G. Robinson) works as a hospital dermatologist, but his two passions are his family and his independent research into dyes and stains. When he abandons his call-duty to attend a lecture by Robert Koch, hospital officials have all they need to dismiss the annoying Jew. Koch, however, engages him to develop dyes to enhance the visibility of the newly discovered tubercle bacillus.

Ehrlich's health is broken by the research, but one success leads to another. With Emil von Behring (Otto Kruger), he works on a serum to save children with diphtheria. Moved by the anxiety of the mothers, he refuses to maintain untreated controls. His superiors are furious, but the state is grateful and he is awarded his own institute.

Ehrlich turns his attention to finding a "magic bullet" to treat syphilis, but his relationship with von Behring founders. Arsenic derivatives are endlessly modified until success is reached in 1910 with agent 606. A few deaths in treated subjects prompt Ehrlich's enemies to arrange a formal inquiry, but he is completely exonerated and reconciled with von Behring.

Commentary

A lucid presentation of the work of two Nobel laureates, Ehrlich (1908) and von Behring (1901), with careful attention to scientific detail, including method and hypothesis. Overcoming prejudices, be they conceptual or social, is a major theme.

The portrayal of hospital and state bureaucrats as bumbling, antisemitic Germans (more German than the American-accented protagonist) adds an interesting wartime twist to the old conflict between scientific genius and petty officialdom. Similarly, hostility against research on syphilis therapy shows that the problem of funding for socially stigmatized problems is nothing new.

Ehrlich's falling out with von Behring is related to the difference between an immune view of disease prevention and the "magic bullet" view of killing germs. Robinson gives Ehrlich a saintly aura, culminating in the near apotheosis of his deathbed scene surrounded by scientific disciples. Despite the slow pace and the 1940's schmaltz, students find this film informative and inspiring.

DirectorWilliam Dieterle
Leading ActorsRuth Gordon, Otto Kruger, Edward G. Robinson
StudioWarner Bros.
Year1940
Color/BWBlack And White
Running Time103 minutes
Video SourceUnited Artists
MiscellaneousAvailable from A Million and One World-Wide Videos
Annotated by Duffin, Jacalyn
Date of Entry 03/27/98
Last Revised 03/05/09