Blog Archive

08 September 2017

A Hero of the Mind: Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet

(This is my entry in the Movie Scientist Blogathon --
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Edward G. Robinson as Dr. Paul Ehrlich

Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, released in 1940, was a landmark film in several ways. First and foremost, it was a giant step forward in the ability of  movies to tackle serious subjects without the interference of censors, which had come to seem rather ridiculous. Dr. Paul Ehrlich was most famous for having discovered a treatment for syphilis, although his real achievements were even greater than that -- he created and developed many of the basic concepts in biochemistry, like immunology and antibodies. But in 1940, and well beyond, the word "syphilis" was never spoken in decent society, and certainly not in the movies -- even though, of course, it was a real danger to real people. This film was the first to treat the subject seriously and soberly, without sensationalism. 

Dr. Ehrlich himself was a German Jew, and throughout the 1930's the Third Reich had been busily trying to scrub all evidence of his achievements from public records. Warner Brothers was the Hollywood studio most committed to anti-Fascism, and they went all out on this project to counter the Nazi propaganda -- this was a class-A  production, with the best and most elaborate sets and costumes (the action takes place between about 1885 and 1915) and the best supporting cast that the studio had ever assembled. Ruth Gordon, Otto Kruger, Sig Rumann, Donald Crisp, Donald Meek, Montagu Love, Albert Basserman, Harry Davenport, Louis Calhern, Theodor Von Eltz, Louis Jean Heydt, Henry O'Neill -- all actors of experience and intelligence, giving a sense of reality and context to the drama. Maria Ouspenskaya is a standout as a wealthy lady whose endowment supports the Ehrlich Institute. This shot of Ehrlich, a devoted family man, giving his daughter a piggyback ride shows the meticulous creation of a middle-class 19th century German home, from the wallpaper to the lace curtains to the crusty loaf of bread on the table. 
Ruth Gordon as Hedy Ehrlich

In film terms, the story is straightforward; Dr. Paul Ehrlich was a scientist of genius who essentially founded the science of biochemistry. First, beginning in the 1880's, he discovered the possibility of staining samples of microbes, which made examination and diagnosis of specific diseases possible. Then he discovered acquired immunity, by which the human body is prompted to produce protective substances by repeated exposure to pathogens. He discovered antibodies. All of these proved immeasurably valuable in treating all infectious diseases.

Ehrlich's early work on chemical staining of pathogens brought him to the attention of the Koch Institute; this innovation made it possible for any doctor to definitively diagnose diseases like tuberculosis, which had not been possible before. Ehrlich actually contracted TB while working on test samples, and as part of his treatment was sent to Egypt for its dry climate, where complete rest was required. While there (according to the script, anyway) he developed the seeds of the theory of acquired immunity through treating a man who survived being bitten by a deadly snake. Dr. Ehrlich discovers that the man had been bitten several times before, with less severe symptoms every time. Ehrlich theorizes that when the body is exposed to small amounts of a pathogen, it is spurred to produce antibodies to defend against that pathogen. This is the foundation of preventative treatments still used today. Ehrlich saw what many had seen before and disregarded; but his analytical mind understood what the facts meant.

And the center of this film -- the heart, soul, and mind -- is a great performance by Edward G. Robinson. The make-up is brilliant, and I'm sure the costumes helped, but Robinson simply transformed himself into this remarkable man. Somehow he is able to show us the quality of Ehrlich's mind -- the originality, grounded in vast knowledge, and the patience to work through a theory; the determination to find truth. This could have been problematic, since the drama is one of thought -- there's really no "action" per se. Science requires endless care and precision. But Robinson enlists the viewer on Ehrlich's side in an intellectual struggle, conveying the nobility of his devotion to discovery and understanding. It's a mark of the quality of his performance that he handles the scientist's equipment, which he had surely never seen before in his life, as if he had used it every day for years.

Robinson handles the scientific equipment like a pro
Robinson had the aid of an excellent script by John Huston and Heinz Herald (who had won an Academy Award for the script for The Story of Louis Pasteur), from an idea by Norman Burnside. All of these writers were strong anti-Fascists, but the film does not preach -- it doesn't need to. As a screenwriter, Huston perceived right from the beginning, in his earliest scripts like Law and Order, how to show character through behavior; audiences don't need to listen to speeches to understand a person's priorities. What they do tells who they are. 

There are hints of the anti-Semitism Dr. Ehrlich faced, with the continuing character of Dr. Wolfort, played by Sig Rumann, who openly admits disliking "persons of his faith," always nipping at his heels. But this seems petty and small compared with the purity of Ehrlich's dedication to truth.
There are some fine scientist moments, which are fun if you know any scientists: Ehrlich and his close friend Behring (excellent Otto Kruger) "meet cute" when Behring comes to pick up some samples and finds Ehrlich working alone in the lab. 
Behring and Ehrlich
After they've chatted awhile about microbes, Ehrlich asks affably,
"Would you like to look at some slides?"
"I'd be delighted!" Behring replies, and they spend a companionable hour examining germ cultures, the beginning of a lifelong friendship. 
Ehrlich shows his findings to Dr. Koch
Later, at the Ehrlich Institute  , the doctor explains a new concept, drawing charts on the floor (apparently he was apt to start drawing diagrams on anything that was handy), and his staff gathers, fascinated, eventually all ending up on the floor. 
Dr Ehrlich explains
My favorite scene, which I'm sure came from Huston, demonstrates the foolishness of prejudice. Dr.Wolfort and several other officials have come to inspect Ehrlich's Institute in order to make funding recommendations to the government. Dr. Ehrlich is surprised when they make a complaint. 
"I was disturbed to find," Wolfort says pompously, "that you have an Oriental working here."
"An Oriental?" Dr. Ehrlich is puzzled for a moment. Then he sees what they mean. "Dr. Hata? Why, so he is! Of course. An excellent scientist."
"Surely his place should go to a German!"
Dr. Ehrlich begins to look stern. "There is no place for race in science." 
This causes the committee to withdraw funds from the Institute. 
The Committee meets Dr. Hata (Wilfred Hari)

Ehrlich's devoted wife, Hedy, visits Frau Speyer (wonderfully played by Maria Ouspenskaya, who makes the most of every moment, as always), a wealthy widow who is looking for a project to endow in memory of her late husband. The Ehrlichs are invited to a formal dinner at the Speyer mansion. Frau Speyer asks Dr. Ehrlich what he's working on. 
"Syphilis." he replies.
Dr. Ehrlich explains it all to Frau Speyer
A sudden silence falls over the entire company. One lady speaks up.
"What did you say?"
"He said 'syphilis,'" Frau Speyer says calmly. Then she asks Ehrlich to tell her all about it. So he does, explaining with great clarity and thoroughness, and drawing diagrams on the damask tablecloth. Hours later, they look up from their conversation and find that everyone else has gone.

"This is the most fascinating thing I have ever heard," Frau Speyer says. Her money will support the Ehrlich Institute. 
Dr. Ehrlich's eventual treatment for syphilis was called 606, because it had taken that many experiments to find the right substance. This treatment was based on arsenic, and consequently could be extremely dangerous and needed very careful handling. During the first few months some patients died from the treatment, not the disease itself. This causes Dr. Wolfort to write an article accusing Dr. Ehrlich of murder. Dr. Ehrlich has no choice but to sue for libel, and the subsequent trial allows him to explain more about the process of discovery.

Ehrlich's complete vindication is followed by some brief scenes of his eventual illness and death, surrounded by his family and devoted collegues. There is no doubt that the world had lost one of the most important scientists who ever lived. 

There are some complaints that there are no women in this movie. Ruth Gordon, as Hedy Ehrlich, shows the steely backbone supporting the traditional little hausfrau; and Maria Ouspenskaya portrays a great lady. It must be admitted that in 19th century Germany, in a story about science, women will be scarce. But director William Dieterle does show us where the women are, in a scene set in a hospital during a diptheria epidemic, where Ehrlich and Behring have been asked to use their new treatment. He focuses on the mothers outside the hospital ward. waiting to see if their children will live or die. This shows us more than words could tell just how important Ehrlich's work was to everyone.

The mothers wait

I have a special fondness for this movie. My father was what is called a "polymath." From his earliest schooldays he followed dual courses of study, ending up summa cum laude in both English and Mathematics. As a teenager, he was in some doubt about which career path to follow -- until he saw Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet. This is the film that made him want to become a scientist, which he did. (In his later days he even looked like Dr. Ehrlich!)

Dr. Paul Ehrlich
By the way, Dr. Sahachiro Hata became a national hero in Japan, where he returned after Ehrlich's death. He founded his own research institute, and there is now a museum dedicated to him.

The real Dr. Ehrlich with the real Dr. Hata
This was Edward G. Robinson's favorite of all his films, understandably enough; an actor rarely gets to embody a character who made life better for practically every one of his fellow human beings.