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This edition: Season 2, Episode 3: "The Knick"

Episode Details

Original tape date: January 14, 2016.

First aired: April 1, 2016.

In episode #203 of Science Goes to the Movies, series co-hosts Dr. Heather Berlin and Faith Salie are joined by Dr. Jill Bargonetti, Professor of Biological Sciences at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, to talk about race and science in the Steven Soderbergh Cinemax series, The Knick.

The conversation begins by dispelling any notion that illnesses and cures might be specific to certain races of people. Dr. Bargonetti explains that race is a social construct that continues to interfere with the progress of biological scientific research. Cardiac surgeon Dr. Daniel Hale Williams is discussed as the first black doctor, who, rather than being slowly accepted by the white medical establishment as is portrayed in The Knick, actually began his own hospital. Then a discussion begins about the accurate depiction in the show of the medical advances that were taking place at the time, brought about in part by the demands of the Civil War. Current medical advances are then contrasted with those, including what Dr. Bargonetti calls the Genetic Revolution, brought about by the sequencing of the human genome, which she says has set the stage for several new breakthroughs. Next the relationship between the patient’s “bedside” and the research being done to help address the patient’s condition is thoroughly considered, in particular how that relationship needs to move in both directions.

Clive Owen’s character, Dr. John Thackeray, is looked at in terms of his multifaceted bigotry, unwilling to share discoveries with other ethnic groups, and the way in which his flaws affect his ability to fulfill the obligations of being a doctor. Heather Berlin offers an assessment of how competitiveness and the separation and lack of communication that exists between scientific fields affect scientific progress.

Syphilis, as it’s depicted in the show, is considered as a specific condition around which very significant progress has been made, and Dr. Bargonetti brings in The Tuskegee Study and what it showed about the U.S. government’s willingness to let the men involved remain infected.

The relationship between progress in women’s health and feminism is explored next, including birth control, postpartum depression, and a greater understanding of the effects of hormonal surges. The new field of reproductive psychology is also described.

The banning in Europe of research done by Israeli scientists provides a real, current example of damaging bias within the medical establishment, and how we haven’t come so far from the time depicted in The Knick. Other antiquated kinds of thinking and methods, like faxing records and prescriptions, are then pointed out.

Dr. Bargonetti assesses the effect of money on how the hospital functions in the show, and in the current medical world, as well as how patents and the politics of funding can inhibit research. In particular Heather Berlin breaks down how research questions often bend to meet what certain institutions are willing to fund, creating a “cart before the horse” situation and making it much more difficult to find support for research that is novel and cutting edge.

The final subject is the advent of medicinal heroin, marketed by the Bayer aspirin company, which is prescribed to Dr. Thackeray in The Knick in order to treat his cocaine addiction. The “step down drug” treatment method, which continues today in the treatment of heroin addiction with methadone, is considered for its ongoing ineffectiveness. The Moral Arc by Michael Shermer and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature figure in as Heather Berlin addresses the question of how morality has changed over time.

Written and Produced by Lisa Beth Kovetz.

Science Goes to the Movies is made possible by generous support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Guest List

Dr. Jill Bargonetti Professor of Biological Sciences, Hunter College & The Graduate Center/CUNY

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