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Early Color Television

John Mackenzie's Recollections of the SKF Experiment

Smith Kline & French Medical Color-TV Unit - 1955This may have been one of the most unusual jobs corporate America ever created! In 1955 John K. Mackenzie1 left CBS in New York to become television director for the Smith Kline & French (now GlaxoSmithKline) closed-circuit medical color-TV unit in Philadelphia.2

During the three years I was there we televised about 300 clinical and surgical procedures from some 25 medical schools. These were live, not taped or recorded. There was no videotape in those days, and kinescopes (16mm film recordings) would have been incredibly time consuming and expensive. All our programs were microwaved across town to our large-screen color-TV projectors setup at medical conventions.

Medical convention auditoriumThe unique nature of these closed-circuit color telecasts often attracted large convention audiences. As a result our "cast" comprised many of the best known names in American medicine. I've often thought that if I could recall everything I learned I could pass the state boards without going to medical school.

Boom camera in surgeryIn retrospect, the sessions with Drs. Michael DeBakey and Owen Wangensteen were interesting. Dr. DeBakey performed what I believe to be the world's first televised endarterectomy. And Dr. Wangensteen, doing a gastric resection, was so upset we were around at all – with thick black TV cables snaking around his personal surgery – he threatened to throw us out. And I'm not sure I blame him. The anesthesia being used, cyclopropane, could react enthusiastically to electrical sparks. Fortunately, we never blew up any operating rooms.

The studio equipment* – including a sort of Lego lighting bridProsthetics clinicge – was usually setup in a hospital waiting area or large conference room. It took our crew of eight from 10 to 12 hours to unpack crates, run cables, and get things worrking. We got pretty good at this. Except, once-in-a-while, we´d blow fuses when we turned on all the studio lights. That made people unhappy; particularly those on motor driven respirators. (It took a lot of juice in those days to get a decent color picture.) The TV crew did an astounding job of keeping aging equipment running despite all the travel and frequent crating and uncrating.

A specially built boom extended the camera lens out over surgical sites. All presentations were "live." If a famous surgeon got in trouble the auditorium filled up pretty fast! Nowadays, of course, with videotaping and editing surgeons don't make mistakes. Which is too bad; as monitoring problem recovery is a great way to learn. A moderator collected questions from the audience which were passed along, via two-way Q&A link, to the operating surgeon.

One of my favorite memories concerns a famous thoracic surgeon who refused to operate unless we piped the World Series baseball audio into his headset.

The photo (top) finds us testing the switching console of the CBS Field-sequential color TV wheelfield-sequential color system in the Smith Kline & French basement on Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia. This system employed red/blue/green filter wheels spinning in front of the cameras, monitors, and projectors. Keeping all the color wheels synchronized, when they were often several miles apart, was a full-time job. Because of the luxurious bandwidth, provided by closed-circuit microwave transmissions, the color and resolution were gorgeous! Comparable to the HDTV we have today.

The job didn't pay much but I flew first-class, had a great expense account and all the Dexamyl and Thorazine I could eat. In those days there were no sampling restrictions. If you had an exhibit badge you could cruise down the aisles at a medical convention and scoop up samples of whatever turned you on. By the time I left SK&F, I had my own formulary. Hundreds of samples! I´m amazed we all lived through it!

I wasn't hired until 1955 and that's when most of the photos were taken. The color unit was proving exceptionally popular and sought after by most of the major medical associations. They found that live color telecasts substantially increased their convention registrations. And SK&F was getting some good press that didn't hurt drug sales. We had a crew of about about eleven technicians when I left in 1958, and we often hired local engineers in each city.

TK-41 RCA color camerasSK&F converted to the RCA color system in 1956. The idea being that we could originate live telecasts and get local TV stations to carry them. Which, in fact, we did by televising live heart surgery in Seattle. Also, spare parts for the old CBS field-sequential system were getting hard to find.

For the record, the original photos I have are going into the archives at The New York Academy of Medicine in New York City.


Photo Credits: Left-to-right: John Mackenzie, Lou Crist, Paul Schmidt, Bobby Sigrist. Not shown: Unit head Lewis Lang, chief engineer Don Hart, cameraman Clarence "Casey" Booi, and audio engineers James "Jimmy" Quinlan, and Sidney "Sid" Sherman.

* I believe this equipment, given to SKF by CBS Laboratories, is now in the Smithsonian.

In 1948, Peter Goldmark of CBS was approached by the pharmaceutical house of Smith, Kline & French, with a proposal to use color television as a teaching tool for surgery. Goldmark accepted, and on May 31, 1949, the first live operation in front of color television cameras took place at the University of Pennsylvania. In December 1949, the Goldmark team took this system to the American Medical Association's annual meeting in Atlantic City.

1 John Mackenzie went on to serve as executive secretary of the Council On Medical Television, which later became HeSCA (Health Sciences Communications Association). A review of the Council's first meeting, held in 1959, can be found by clicking on this link.

2 The term "closed-circuit" was used to describe private telecasts, transmitted over dedicated microwave facilities, that could not be seen by the general public. In 1956, however, after converting to the RCA color system, the SK&F TV unit transmitted the world´s first live, open-circuit heart surgery color cast in Seattle, WA. The operation was done by Dr. Dean Crystal, who corrected a patent ductus heart defect in a six month old child.

In 1953 and '54 Dr. Robert Warner of Salt Lake City initiated the nation's first series of open-circuit continuing medical education clinics via KDYL-TV and KUED-TV. For an excellent summary on this pioneering work see: Castle, Hilmon C. Open-Circuit Television in Postgraduate Medical Education; J. Med Educ., 38:254-260, 1963

A grant from Eli Lilly, to The Council On Medical Television, was being considered to expand the Salt Lake City efforts to the nation's network of educational TV stations. Unfortunately, Lilly pulled the funding plug. The company may have felt the nation's TV viewers were not quite ready for the phsyiologic and anatomic intimacies the series might divulge. Things have changed!

Ciba Pharmaceuticals (now Novartis) was also operating an Eidophor medical TV unit under the direction of Felton Davis, Jr.

For more information on early color TV equipment and installations, check out these archive sites: