The medical profession of the 1950s gave short shrift to the idea of an informed public. Though many doctors thought that people should know more about health promotion, they felt a detailed knowledge of disease was not desirable.
The British Medical Association's own publication, Family Doctor, trod carefully. It did not, for example, carry advertisements for the Family Planning Association. There were 'obviously grave doubts about the wisdom of publishing in a popular health magazine issued by the BMA to the public, and read, among others, by teenagers and by the immature, an advertisement which might be held to give the green light to contraceptive practices', it declared as late as 1962.
Three years earlier there had been a row in the BMA when Family Doctor ran articles on 'Marrying with a baby on the way' and 'Is chastity outmoded?', and the entire stock was ceremonially pulped amid accusations that the BMA was engaging in censorship.
And when the BBC televised a series of programmes on The Hurt Mind, doctors alleged large numbers of patients had crowded down to their surgeries as a result to ask for electro-convulsive therapy.
Charles Fletcher, a physician at Hammersmith Hospital was concerned about the problems of doctor-patient communication. With the BBC, he planned and presented a series of programmes called Your Life in their Hands, believing that doctors failed to explain adequately the nature of illness and its treatment.
The programmes included cardiac surgery, a brain operation and an operation on the liver. Such an open approach was unpopular with many of Dr Fletcher's colleagues, and the British Medical Journal considered it demeaning for doctors and nurses to appear as mummers on the stage to entertain the public. People's anxiety would be heightened, increasing hypochondria and neurosis. Hopefully, it argued, the BBC would not televise a death on the table in its presentation of topics that, though familiar to medical men, were full of mystery, fear and foreboding to the ordinary person.
In the wake of the series, a doctor wrote to say that as a result of one programme a patient had correctly guessed that he was suffering from cancer. A ward sister was anxious that patients in her ward receiving deep x-ray therapy would realise what it was for. People had fainted while watching TV programmes, sustaining head injuries, it was claimed.
The lay press relished the attempt by some doctors to keep their own secret garden. William Sargant, medical adviser to The Hurt Mind, pointed out that there were 5,000 suicides every year, many among depressed people for whom help was available. If even a few of them went to the doctor to ask for treatment, was this wrong?
Although the BBC's audience research team found its audiences liked the programmes, the study fell short of the quality the BMJ expected. Inference from the population studied, it said, would demand a degree of recklessness that would land most statisticians in Emergency Ward 10.
Throwing its own scientific standards to the wind, the journal concluded: 'There can be no doubt of the danger to the unstable with a morbid curiosity about blood and bowels, to frail worriers, and to those with a serious disease who may receive interpretations different from those given by their own doctors.'