Doctors on the box

Show Navigation

By | From the Collections

family watching television

A family watching television in 1958. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, USA

It seems that you can hardly switch on the TV these days without stumbling across a fly-on-the-wall documentary set amidst the high octane drama of an A&E department, or someone willing to have the details of their intimate surgery broadcast to the nation accompanied by cheerful commentary from the surgeon as s/he slices and stitches.

It was not always so.  In the spring of 1958 the BBC screened a landmark series entitled “Your Life in Their Hands” which included footage of real operations. There was an outcry from the medical profession, particularly the British Medical Association, the series was hotly debated amongst members of the Royal College of Surgeons, and there were even questions in the House. The medical establishment was not, it seems, ready for the insertion of the television camera into the doctor-patient relationship.

Surgeons performing surgery

Surgeons performing an abdominal aortic aneurysm surgery. WI no. N0020539

At the time, Dr Michael Essex-Lopresti was a regular reviewer of film and television for the medical press and was invited to review “Your Life in Their Hands” for The Lancet. His in-depth review was, however, never published. He has deposited his papers relating to the series, and other medical broadcasts of the period, in the Wellcome Library, where they are now available for research. They provide a fascinating insight into just how much the relationship between medicine and the media has changed since the 1950s.

Author: Jenny Haynes, Archives and Manuscripts manager, Wellcome Library

For further information see:



Angela Saward

Angela Saward is curator of the Moving Image and Sound Collection at the Wellcome Library.

See more posts by this author

Comments are closed.

Related Blog Posts