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Fri
Jun 21 2013 11:00am

Mad Doctor Hall of Fame: Physicians’ Edition

Sir Lionel Barton: “You're Fu Manchu, aren't you?”

Fu Manchu: I am a doctor of philosophy from Edinburgh, I am a doctor of law from Christ College, I am a doctor of medicine from Harvard. My friends, out of courtesy, call me doctor.

Sir Lionel Barton: “Oh, I beg your pardon. Well, three times doctor, what do you want of me?”

—The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

The mad Dr. Gogol (Peter Lorre)Since the premiere of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1908, the use and abuse of power obtained by science has been a reoccurring theme in horror and science fiction films. With the early century’s ‘quantum leap’ of the understanding of the universe (Einstein published his special theory of relativity in 1905), and with the huge advances in medicine and surgery, it was clear to everyone that scientists and doctors had assumed positions of power and ethical decision-making that in the past had been given to such men as priests and religious figures. Now this power had shifted into the hands of scientists, and with this came the promise of a new age…but also the potential to misuse this power in frightening new ways.

The idea of one’s grasp exceeding one’s reach isn’t new—stories of inventions gone wrong have been with us since Icarus became enamored with his father’s creation of artificial wings, flew too close the sun, and perished in a fall to a sea. The ‘great thinker’ plot­—the tale of a man whose search for a great truth is so absolute that he loses sight of his own humanity—has been given a scientific setting since at least 1818, when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, a story about a doctor who creates life, only to find it a force impossible to control. But it took the coming of the 20th century, and the rat-a-tat delivery of four major developments—telephones, airplanes, automobiles, and motion pictures—to make clear to everyone how radically the application of scientific principles was going to change the world. And since any powerful invention can be exploited, who was better to do the exploiting than the men who understood how they worked? Those of us who like movies have a more colorful (if less kind) description of ‘great thinkers.’ We like to call them ‘mad doctors.’

[Yesss....that's the prescription we were after!]