Medical Newshound A Pioneer in TV Health

Mar 13, 2006  •  Post A Comment

It seems improbable now, a distant vision of a time long ago when television came closer to living up to its promise as a mass medium capable of educating and enlightening, not just entertaining and promoting.

For 12 years, starting in the early 1960s, WNBC-TV, the NBC-owned station in New York, aired a half-hour program every weekend devoted to cutting-edge medical research taking place in the best hospitals and university labs around the country.

The program had an aggressively pedestrian name, “Research Project.” The station today has no archival record of it. But health and science editor Frank Field remembers having free rein to probe in-depth the work being done by the likes of pioneering heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey and Dr. Charles Kelman, who went on to revolutionize cataract surgery. Mr. Field would pore through the medical journals, find something that interested him, check it out, then entice the researchers, asking them to “bring in gadgetry, test tubes, animals, whatever they wanted and we would play show and tell.”

Mr. Field, who joined WNBC in 1959 and later worked at WCBS-TV, is 82 now. Largely retired, he splits his time between Boca Raton, Fla., and New Jersey, and he still pops up on the occasional night as a fill-in weatherman at WWOR-TV, the UPN station serving the New York market, where his son Storm is the chief meteorologist.

His career could be a metaphor for the ongoing push-pull of priorities in local news. Despite decades of contributions to health and science reporting, Mr. Field is still far better known among New Yorkers as the station’s longtime weatherman, who took endless late-night ribbing from his friend Johnny Carson and almost got fired once when Mr. Carson walked onto the WNBC set during a weather report.

But it is partly thanks to Mr. Field that the Heimlich maneuver is well-known now as the simple standard procedure that has saved many from choking death. He also aired in 1974 what is thought to be the first live surgery broadcast, a 90-minute mother-daughter kidney transplant that was credited at the time with spurring a major increase in organ donation. His use of celebrities as a vehicle to impart medical information to viewers has become standard operating procedure in many newsrooms today, for better or worse.

And it was all because doing the weather “bored the hell out of me,” he said in a recent interview.

A geology major at Brooklyn College, Mr. Field got his meteorological training while in the Army Air Force during World War II, eventually handling forecasting for American bomber squadrons operating out of England. He earned his doctor of optometry degree from the Massachusetts College of Optometry in 1950. He worked for the U.S. Weather Bureau in New York and later served as a researcher and instructor in bioclimatology, studying asthma and air pollution, at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

WNBC came calling in 1959. TV weather reports were a joke at the time, done by puppets and beauty pageant queens. The station’s new general manager was from Oklahoma, where weather is serious business, and wanted someone with training in air currents and the like. Mr. Field was hired as the city’s first professional on-air meteorologist, according to a 1982 station biography.

After a few years, he said, he was bored: “There was no challenge to it.” He noticed that local reporters with no science training were being sent out to do health and science reports and would inevitably come back with “a big breakthrough I knew was a crock,” having been duped by a “PR person smart enough to make it into a big thing.”

When Mr. Field asked to do some of the reports, he was told he could do them only on his own time and for no pay. So he did. When camera crews had some free time, they would call him at Einstein College. He would touch base with prearranged contacts at local hospitals and rush out to tape interviews.

Increasingly, he was in the right place at the right time. The U.S. space program launched, and NBC News needed someone. “They called me in and I explained what gravity was,” he said, and he soon found himself beside Chet Huntley and David Brinkley during space shots. For a while he reported for NBC’s “Today” show as well, but doing the late local news followed by the early-morning network show didn’t leave enough time to sleep.

His big breakthrough, he said, was “Research Project,” a marked counterpoint to the brief and breezy headlines that pass for health reporting at many stations today. The program got its start only because the station needed a show to satisfy Federal Communications Commission public affairs programming requirements, and the educators who normally occupied the slot were on summer break, Mr. Field said. A station spokeswoman said there is no longer any record of the program or when it aired because many files were lost when the station moved several years ago. Mr. Field said all the tapes were erased in the 1980s.

An undated newspaper article describes an early show: Film of open heart surgery, an explanation of a pacemaker and “a dog with another’s heart frisked about in the studio,” as Dr. Adrian Kantrowitz of Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn predicted a human heart transplant would happen before man landed on the moon.

It was a time when doctors rarely appeared on TV, because the medical society frowned on it, Mr. Field recalled. But newspaper clips from the time testify to the public hunger for news of medical advancements.

Over the years, and what Mr. Field guesses were 500 half-hours of programming, guests included Willem Kolff, inventor of the kidney dialysis machine, and Nobel Prize winners Severo Ochoa and Roslyn Yalow. Dr. Henry Heimlich came on to talk about his technique to treat dysphagia, an esophagus ailment.

That appearance led a couple of years later to one of Mr. Field’s better-known contributions. Dr. Heimlich called to say “he had developed a technique to save people from choking,” Mr. Field said. “I thought, ‘This sounds like baloney.'”

But Dr. Heimlich had sent a letter about the technique to the Journal of the American Medical Association, and that helped allay Mr. Field’s skepticism. “I never put a doctor on unless I checked him out because a lot of guys out there have a cure for every disease there is,” Mr. Field said.

The Heimlich maneuver got its first television demonstration on WNBC in 1973, according to a 1982 press release from the station. Within days Mr. Field was getting calls and letters from viewers-some 8,000 over the years-who had seen the report and used the technique successfully.

The American Red Cross and others fought the practice for years, fearing it would do more harm than good. Mr. Field was so convinced of the technique’s benefits that he made it a personal crusade, airing story after story, over the objections of his producers, about people who had been saved. It took years, but the Heimlich maneuver was eventually recognized by the medical establishment.

Mr. Field recalls many medical advancements that he wasn’t allowed to cover live because his producers feared the reports would be too graphic. One report he had taped was spiked without notice by the producer because it used the word “urine,” which the producer thought would be offensive at 6 p.m. But in 1974, after promoting the idea of donor kidneys for years, Mr. Field received permission to air a kidney transplant live.

Over the two-hour, early-evening news block, Mr. Field and his crew tracked the surgery, cutting away when things got too bloody. The doctor, leading kidney transplant surgeon Dr. Samuel Kountz, worked out a timetable that included commercial breaks. In all, six segments covering a total of 23 minutes of the operation were shown.

An estimated audience of nearly 1 million viewers tuned in, according to a 1974 article from Medical World News. More than 3,000 organ donor cards in the New York-New Jersey area were subsequently requested, the article reported, and there was a major
spike in the practice of offering what were then called “cadaver kidneys.” Dr. Kountz, now deceased, praised television’s promotional power as being more important than that of the medical journals.

Although he cites some exceptions, such as CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Mr. Field doesn’t have much confidence in the health and science reporting he sees on television today. He cites a lack of reporters who are “capable of discerning what is real. … Today you have communications majors. Well, give me a break.”

He said too much reporting is “rip-and-tear copy” from the wires, much of it promotion disguised as news.

Mr. Field is a fan, however, of one now-standard health reporting device: using celebrities as a hook and having reporters do first-person medical reports, such as Katie Couric’s on-air colonoscopy. “If it’s milked properly, I’m all for it,” he said, noting that the “Couric colorectal cancer phenomenon is a plus.”

Mr. Field made his own venture into celebrity health reporting in the 1970s, when WNBC adopted a “Live at Five” format in an effort to revitalize ratings. He was told he would no longer have a camera crew to shoot medical pieces and instead would have to come up with something live several times a week. His solution was what he called “The Sick and the Famous.”

“I realized that if [an average person] had some sort of mole on her back and her life was saved by surgery, nobody cared. But if it was some famous person, say, the governor’s wife was saved, everybody would be into it,” he said.

“Having somebody famous do something? I don’t care whether they are promoting themselves; the information is getting out there,” Mr. Field said.