A German doctor develops chemical agents for use against infectious disease. Biographical. [Dir: William Dieterle/ Edward G. Robinson, Ruth Gordon, Otto Kruger/ 103 min/ Drama, Biography/ Creator as Hero, Anti-Regulation, Voluntaryism]
Chances are you’ve never heard of the ingenious Dr. Ehrlich, whose lifework is depicted here. He’s one of those little-known heroes of science, long forgotten, but without whom many of us would not be alive today.
In particular, Ehrlich developed a method of specific staining of microbes that made possible the diagnosis of tuberculosis and other diseases. He helped to create an antidiphtheria vaccine. He developed a theory of immunity for which he shared the Nobel Prize. And he is credited with the establishment of antimicrobial chemotherapy — that is, the use of specific chemical agents, which Ehrlich called “magic bullets,” to attack harmful infectious organisms. It is this last contribution that gets most of the attention here, specifically his development of a cure for syphilis.
Ehrlich was driven to do medical research because he was unable to cure his patients with then available treatments. This is dramatized in an early scene in which Ehrlich prescribes sweat baths, the conventional treatment for syphilis at the time, to a young patient. Both he and the patient know it will do no good, and shortly thereafter the patient commits suicide.
Later, as a researcher, Ehrlich is seized by the inspiration that an arsenic compound might kill syphilis. In order to find a treatment both safe and effective, he develops and performs trials on a staggering number of arsenic compounds. During this time, and throughout most of the film, he is doing his work at public expense, an objectionable aspect of the story from a libertarian perspective. But the downside of public funding is made clear, when government bureaucrats use their control of Ehrlich’s funding to punish him for hiring an Asian (an unpopular thing in the Germany of that day, and an episode based on an actual incident). Ehrlich’s funding is cut in half, jeopardizing his experiments, which are subsequently saved by private funding from a generous, independent-minded old woman. In the end, Ehrlich’s cure saves untold thousands worldwide.
There are several things about this story that libertarians will appreciate. First and foremost, it’s a terrific example of the creator-as-hero theme. Second, the film positions Ehrlich as an independent, socially tolerant person, who seeks to cure a disease that was, like AIDS today, associated with an unpopular class of people. And finally, in two scenes the film addresses the still controversial subject of human drug testing, when Ehrlich, at great legal risk to himself, releases his treatments for use on otherwise doomed patients before full testing is complete. It’s just a good thing the FDA wasn’t around to stop him.
The only real flaw in the story is the statement, made by Ehrlich a couple of times, that syphilis can be contracted casually from inanimate objects. This is, of course, untrue and simply reflects the science of the day in which the film was made.
Edward G. Robinson is delightful as Ehrlich and is supported by a first-rate cast, a superior Max Steiner musical score, and generally intelligent direction. This is a touching, upbeat story from Hollywood’s golden age.