Doctors in Film: Which Movies Are Most Inspirational to You?

David J. Kerr, CBE, MD, DSc


January 13, 2023

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hello. I'm David Kerr, professor of cancer medicine at University of Oxford. Today, I'd like to talk a little about the concept of doctors on film. There's a fascinating article in a recent British Medical Journal written by one of our leading film movie reviewers, Anna Smith, in which she talks about the surprising deficit or lack of medicine in world cinema.

You'd think that given the genuinely life-or-death drama that we're involved in and engaged in as health professionals, we would see more medical dramas committed to the golden screen and to movies. Of course, there are some that can be comedic, some can be melodramatic, and some are like biopics that reflect true life stories that have been captured about remarkable individuals who have overcome extraordinary challenges, given some health problem.

I'd like each of you who are listening today to think about your own films — films that have touched you and films in which medicine has shown through. They may even have inspired you. Not television series — let's stick with movies that you've seen, that have touched you, and that made a difference.

Doctor Zhivago, David Lean's cinematic version of Boris Pasternak's novel, was a sweeping, extraordinary melodrama covering the Russian Revolution, of course. Our hero, Dr Zhivago, was a poet, a doctor, and a remarkable human being. There was a fantastic cast. It was set across the steppes of Russia, so the filmic backdrop was just extraordinary. It also had a brilliant theme tune. What more would you want? I was always very fond of Doctor Zhivago.

The film that moved me most and inspired me as a youngster when first I saw it is The Citadel. When I was a wee kid growing up in Glasgow, we didn't have nursery, so my aunt Anne taught me to read. One of the books was The Citadel by A.J. Cronin. Cronin himself was a physician who went on to write Doctor Finlay's Casebook and a number of other fantastic, melodramatic blockbusters.

The Citadel was my reading book when I was a tiny nipper in the backstreets of Glasgow. This was made into a film in the mid-1930s, with Robert Donat taking the lead. This was an idealistic, young Glaswegian doctor. Clearly, there's a large amount of self-identification going on here. If you read the book, you read my life story in some ways.

The film is fantastic. Robert Donat leaves university with his gold medal in his pocket and as Dr Andrew Manson, goes to work in the Welsh mining valleys. He becomes an extraordinary diagnostician, understanding the tuberculosis that the miners suffer from, describing the first cases of silicosis, and so on.

In those days, extraordinarily unusually, he received an MD and had a research thesis on the pulmonary problems of miners. Again, as somebody working effectively as a general practitioner in the Welsh mining valleys, he's elected to fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians, which was quite a thing in those days.

His commitment to his impoverished working-class patients shines through. There's a scene in the film — in which I defy any of you not to have a lump in your throat — when he resuscitates a tiny, newborn baby. Goodness gracious. Lump-in-throat city.

Then he takes up with a bit of a bad crowd in London and is subtly seduced into private medicine, quackery, and quasi-homeopathy in search of checks, guineas, and shiny women. What a fall from grace. Then, without wanting to give the plot away, he recovers himself. It is a fantastic melodrama.

Some people in our country say it was one of the precipitants of our NHS. It just captured so beautifully the plight of the uninsured and those who couldn't afford medical care and was perhaps one of the drivers toward the delivery of our national, socialized healthcare system in 1947, which remains, to this day, our government's greatest gift to citizens.

You sense the impact that both the book, of course, first, and then seeing the film had on me. Tell me what medical films have you seen that moved you to joy, to laughter, or to tears? What inspired you? I'd be really fascinated to know.

I'm asking about world cinema — as Clint Eastwood would say, "The good, the bad, and the ugly" — in which doctors or health professionals played an important role in film.

Each of you will have your favorites, so tell us what your three top doctors in films might be.

Thanks for listening, as always. This is an important one for you to get down your thoughts and your best films. We'll make a list of them and make those more widely available.

Thanks for listening, as always. For the time being, Medscapers, over and out. Thank you.

David J. Kerr, CBE, MD, DSc, is a professor of cancer medicine at the University of Oxford. He is recognized internationally for his work in the research and treatment of colorectal cancer and has founded three university spin-out companies: COBRA Therapeutics, Celleron Therapeutics, and Oxford Cancer Biomarkers. In 2002, he was appointed Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

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