Friday, July 10, 2015


Loretta Young
In an era famed for its conservative attitude toward women, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first female physician, later the founder of the first women’s hospital and medical school and the first advocate of preventive medicine. She also established the first training school for nurses and pioneered for home nursing and out-patient care. All this was accomplished in the face of tremendous obstacles which she overcame by sheer force of will and unflagging perseverance. In 1899, Elizabeth Blackwell’s name had achieved a permanent place on the roster of famous and brilliant pioneers whose struggles against the wilderness of prejudice and ignorance created our modern civilizations.

A few days before Christmas 1944, Loretta Young was offered the role of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell for a radio production on The Cavalcade of America. Young turned in a fine performance, including an aged voice to represent her declining years in retirement in England. Merrill Dennison, the script writer, did not have to do much research for the subject. Rachel Baker, author of The First Woman Doctor: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D., published earlier that year by Julian Messner, Inc., did the legwork for Dennison. 

Baker drew upon four primary sources for research: Alice Stone Blackwell, the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, and the New York Academy of Medicine which granted the author access to the Rare Book Room. The fourth was perhaps the most significant as Baker quoted extensively from Elizabeth Blackwell’s autobiography, Pioneer Work for Women, which was shaped from Blackwell's diaries and letters. Dennison chose to open the play with Blackwell, retired and spending her declining years in England, receiving a letter concerning the naming of Elizabeth Blackwell House at Geneva College in her honor. Looking back on her career, the remainder of the broadcast centered on various flashbacks, bridged with music, focusing on the highlights of her struggles and triumphs. 

Loretta Young
There has been a big myth that Cavalcade was "historically accurate" but the medium of radio could not prevent dramatic licenses and legal avoidances without create alterations to the story. Case in point: The character of Kevin Dwyer in this episode was fictitious. When a woman died of inflammation of the appendix, a condition for which there was no known cure and no known method of treatment, a riotous mob formed outside the infirmary. Kevin Dwyer, a man cured from pneumonia courtesy of Blackwell, urged the mob to reconsider and reminded them of how their own loved ones were saved as a result of Blackwell’s knowledge and expertise. In reality, a young physician, Dr. Richard Sharpe Kissam, who served as consultant for the hospital, came running, managed somehow to climb through the crowd, and making his way to the husband of the dead woman, offered at once to perform an autopsy to prove that all proper care had been taken.

The only notable aspects in the book that was avoided altogether in Dennison's adaptation was the numerous references to anti-slavery in the United States and the Civil War, which provided Blackwell with a considerable number of patients when times prior were slow. Elizabeth Blackwell went to Paris to work in a woman's hospital to gain experience, then went to St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London to be cured of a disease which almost blinded her. With only thirty minutes to tell the story, Dennison chose to highlight the more prominent scenes in the life of the first female physician.

Baker's book provides a great story worth repeating (and was not dramatized in the Cavalcade production). Assisting Dr. Webster at an operation during her studies, Elizabeth Blackwell was washing her hands and she confided that there was no part of her medical studies which was so fascinating to her as surgery.

Was Young the model for this cover art?
He looked at her fingers. "You have deft and capable hands," he said, "small, and yet they're the hands of a surgeon." He told her not to strain and stiffen her fingers, not to carry heavy parcels or to do coarsening work.

"You must keep your hands pliable," he said, and he told her of exercises for relaxing the fingers.

And another time when she sat in the study hall bent over her books, he came up to her. "You'll all the same," he almost shouted, for he had a temper too, "wasting your eyesight, which is the most precious thing that a surgeon possesses!"

Later Elizabeth learned that Dr. Webster, who was operating less frequently, was troubled with failing eyesight, and that despite his jollity this was a source of great bitterness to him. And Elizabeth, who sat up late every night studying the reports of famous operations, began to realize how important her eyes and fingers were.

At the dissection table, one, a little liquid spurted into her face. Elizabeth reached up to wipe it with the corner of her apron. "Guard your eyes!" shouted Dr. Webster, and he gave her hand a hard blow, afterward apologizing.

"Without your eyes," he said, "your fingers are blind!" And as if he had said more than he wanted to, he strode from the room, coming back later to joke and banter as he passed from table to table in his usual informal way. 

In today's society, we mistake a scolding or sharp advice from another person as criticism. In reality, such "criticism" is generally sincere concern. Elizabeth chose not to get upset at the man who scolded her in front of the other class (consisting all male), but rather the doctor's concern her for and over time the students themselves began to treat Elizabeth with a new respect and a greater sense of friendliness.

Movie version of U-Boat Prisoner.
Not all episodes of The Cavalcade of America were adapted faithfully for the radio. U-Boat Prisoner (broadcast December 27, 1943), for example, was scripted by Arthur Arent from the autobiography of the same name, published by the Houghton Mifflin Company. Archie Gibbs, a war hero, recounted his life before entry into the service. During the war, Gibbs was torpedoed and rescued twice in the same 24 hours. The second rescue, however, was on a German submarine and as a prisoner, Gibbs had nothing to do but listen to the radio. As they listened, Archie found what he needed to sustain him, come what might. The German sailors were dialing for something, dialing endlessly but never finding what they sought. But at last they found it. Long and clear the signal came in, and you could have knocked Archie Gibbs over with a pin-cushion. For what he heard was "Deep in the Heart of Texas" and the German sailors were clapping in approved American fashion at just the proper times. Then and there, Archie Gibbs ceased to be scared. 

The Cavalcade production was an adaptation of the final chapter of the book, which centered on Gibbs' U-Boat experience. Arent chose to avoid the rest of the book which focused on the childhood and farm life of Archie Gibbs.

Like most radio programs, The Cavalcade of America featured production values of varied quality. Some were better than others. The two described above are worth listening to (including "Dolly Madison" from May 22, 1939, which features an excellent script.) Fans of Loretta Young may also want to hear this episode to decide for themselves whether the actress was able to pull it off when playing the role of a young woman, middle aged woman and an old woman. A voice talent that could almost be compared to professional radio actors such as Jeanette Nolan and Agnes Moorehead.

Episode #414  "DOCTOR IN CRINOLINE"  Broadcast December 18, 1944
Cast: Georgia Backus (Aunt Barbara); Bea Benaderet (Mrs. Elder and Cornelia); Frank Graham (the reporter); Fred Howard (Dr. Lee); Mary Jane Croft (Emily and Miss Waller); Peg La Centra (Laura Dawson); Barbara Lee Benton (the child); John McIntire (Kevin Dwyer and Collins); Howard McNear (Smith and Dr. Benedict); Lou Merrill (the director and Field); Jeanette Nolan (Kitty); Herbert Rawlinson (Mr. Gilpin and Hale); Dick Ryan (Mr. Elwell and Mr. Webster); Eleanor Taylor (Mary Jean); and Loretta Young (Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell).
Produced and directed by Jack Zoller.
Program Announcer: Walter Huston
Commercial Announcer: Gayne Whitman
Music Composed and Conducted by Robert Armbruster.

Trivia, etc. 
The original title of the first draft of this script was "The First Woman Doctor." The title was changed by the second-to-final draft, "America’s First Woman Physician." The final draft featured the final change, "Doctor in Crinoline."
Jeanette Nolan received a special acknowledgment at the closing credits for her role of Kitty in the production.