REVIEW: Learning to Laugh at the Inevitable — "Peanuts and the Picture of Health" at the Charles M. Schulz Museum
By Joe Ferguson
The day Charles Schulz died one of my patients stopped by my office, gave me hug, told me “I knew you’d be bummed,” then promptly left. She didn’t have an appointment. I had always tried to ease the discomfort of the healthcare experience by chatting up my patients and their children-in-tow. It was no secret that I started my day by reading the comics and that Peanuts was my favorite. I had no idea that anyone really listened.
The unavoidability of illness and injury is a fact of life, but their trials do not carry the levity that one usually associates with a daily comic strip. Charles M. Schulz—the creator of Peanuts—seemed to think otherwise. All aspects of life, including the unpleasant ones, were subject to his creative insight.
The newest exhibit at the Charles M. Schulz Museum is Peanuts and the Picture of Health. It features 56 comics strips and health-related artwork and products. Many of the maladies chronicled in the strips were transferred directly from Schulz’s own life—a broken foot, knee surgery. Others were from his experiences raising children—measles vaccinations. Some—such as amblyopia—took careful research and discussion with medically-trained friends.
Schulz grew up playing baseball, football, and ice hockey, and later took up jogging, tennis, and even rollerblading. Like any avid athlete he experienced his share of sports injuries. Schulz’s struggle with tennis elbow inspired a strip in which Charlie Brown, because of elbow pain, couldn’t convince Schroeder he was trying to throw curveballs. Another strip portrayed Snoopy with his nose wrapped up, which likely reflected Schulz’s trials with an elbow brace. His interests, however, were not limited to typical musculoskeletal complaints.
Schulz became interested in the dangers of dehydration after reading about a young athlete from Texas who became extremely dehydrated and later went into shock and died. The athlete had been drinking water, but was not replacing the electrolytes he was losing through perspiration. After discussing hyponatremia with his friend, Dr. Robert Albo, physician for the Oakland Raiders, Schulz published a strip in which Snoopy had a unique idea for correcting the imbalance.
Schulz was also an early promoter of preventive medicine—as exercise and diet gained national attention, he started including the topics in his comics. He began jogging in the 70s, as did his famous character Snoopy. Peppermint Patty tried to improve the nutrition of her school lunches, but always found a way to sneak pastries or French fries into her lunch bag. Healthy eating took on personal meaning to Schulz after he had a quadruple bypass surgery in 1981. His typical breakfast of bacon and eggs—eaten daily at his own table in the Warm Puppy Café on the Schulz campus—was replaced by an English muffin with grape jelly and a small cup of coffee.
Childhood immunizations were not as controversial as they are today. The measles vaccine was introduced during Schulz’s lifetime, and substantially reduced the incidence of the disease. Several of the strips featured Linus discussing the advantage of getting the measles vaccine.
Other strips featured commentary on tetanus shots, childhood ear piercing, pain relief from copper bracelets, and Feldenkrais Method. Also on display were examples of Peanuts figurines exercising, a Snoopy toy medical case, exercise-themed Peanuts books, and a photo of Charles M. Schulz jogging.
Of special note is an animation cell from the special Why, Charlie Brown, Why? which addresses the topic of childhood cancer. The special aired in 1990, and received an Emmy nomination. It featured a new character named Janice who was diagnosed with cancer. The animated special is on view in the museum’s theater.
Schulz’s humorous comic strips may seem simple, but so are many truths. In the case of this series of comics, Schulz reminds us that everyone goes through physical trials, and they are best met with acceptance, empathy, and when possible, some humor.
The light-hearted tone of a comic strip can gently increase awareness of health-related issues, furnish evidence of the universality of the human condition, and, in my case, provide common ground for provider and patient.
To that patient who stopped by so many years ago, once again, thanks.
Peanuts and the Picture of Health runs through April 24th.