13 Great Movies About Heroic Scientists and Healthcare Workers

We need them more than ever right now, but some movies have already shown their appreciation for the real heroes.
Heroic Scientist Movies

Medical professionals and scientists should always be appreciated for their heroic efforts. But sometimes it’s easy to overlook all of the great work that they do when our everyday lives feel quite normal. While there are always going to be countless problems out there that should warrant more attention, a global pandemic that affects everyone is a perfect time to take a minute to recognize that healthcare workers and scientists are the freaking best.

The coronavirus epidemic has doctors and nurses confronting a deadly virus head-on every single day at the moment. They are putting themselves in harm’s way in an effort to save lives. Many of them are being forced to make self-sacrifices, like being unable to see their loved ones and putting their own health at risk, because of the gravity of the situation. Elsewhere, scientists are working around the clock to come up with a cure that will save lives all around the world.

This list is dedicated to movies that acknowledge the importance of these fields. While the movies here depict a variety of situations — some of which are quite fantastical — they are all of the belief that scientists and experts are heroes, and that’s a message that will resonate with many movie viewers right now.

The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936)

This is the ultimate underdog success story, both in terms of the story and the production. The film opens with Louis Pasteur’s fight to standardize sterilization techniques in medicine and convince others of the germ theory of disease, and it continues through his work in vaccination and developing vaccines against anthrax and rabies.

For the time, the film’s depiction of various scientific procedures and microscopic methodologies is commendably accurate, and I’ve seen claims that schools would even use certain scenes to introduce specific microscopy techniques. As far as the making of The Story of Louis Pasteur was concerned, Warner Bros. thought it was too dull and educational, but Paul Muni loved the script and had enough clout in his contract to get the film made in spite of the lack of interest. However, the studio gave the movie as little to work with as possible, making the filmmakers reuse sets from another production and giving them next to nothing as far as a marketing budget is concerned.

Still, The Story of Louis Pasteur ended up being an unexpected critical and commercial success. An estimated 10 percent of the US population at the time went to see the film and it won three Oscars, inspiring a number of other scientist biopics in the next decade, including Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, Madame Curie, and Edison, The Man. (Ciara Wardlow)

Godzilla (1954)

The true horror of Godzilla has nothing to do with a giant monster rampaging through a city, leaving chaos in its wake. It’s a film about man-made terror, and the furious beast is a symbol of war, the threat of nuclear energy, and the destruction of the planet, all of which have been caused by humanity.

In the movie, the scientist Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) realizes that the only way to defeat the monster is with a destructive chemical reaction that will remove all of the oxygen from its body. However, the scientist also knows that if anyone else became privy to the information that he knows about the Oxygen Destroyer, it could be used by armies and politicians to cause global catastrophes. So he kills himself and ensures that the secret dies with him.

Serizawa’s act of heroism is selfless. Not only did he save humanity from the monster, but he also tried to save it from itself.

Red Beard (1965)

Akira Kurosawa made a few classics in his time, but this one isn’t discussed as often as movies such as Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, or Rashomon. Those are all great movies, but Red Beard is the most human and inspirational work in his stunning oeuvre. The movie also marked the end of an era for the great director, as it was the final film he made with Toshiro Mifune.

The story centers around a wise and compassionate Red Beard (Mifune), a veteran doctor residing in an impoverished village. He takes a younger doctor under his wing and teaches him all about humanity and how to empathize with patients, inspiring his protege to become a better healer and person as a result. This is a simple story, but it’s a powerful one with an optimistic message about finding the goodness in humanity.

Jaws (1974)

While Steven Spielberg’s iconic shark movie is about a team of heroes using their combined knowledge and skills to save the day, it’s the scientist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) who makes the best impression. He’s a shark expert, which comes in useful during the hunt for the one terrorizing Amity Island. However, he also proves to be a badass, as he volunteers to enter a cage, go underwater, and bait the killer Great White into a trap. Most people in their right mind would never do that, not even to prevent a shark from munching on the townsfolk. Furthermore, let’s not also forget that Hooper loves the ocean and all of its creatures, and by agreeing to take the fight to the shark, he makes a big personal sacrifice for the greater good. That’s the definition of a hero right there.

Arachnophobia (1990)

The heroic doctor in this movie (played by Jeff Daniels) is one of the bravest of them all. If you’re like me, the idea of confronting an army of killer spiders is about as appealing as rubbing your face against a cheese grate. That said, being a hero is all about courage, and that means overcoming your fears for a higher purpose. That’s what the doctor in this movie has to do, as he’s also terrified of these horrible arachnid menaces. But he rises to the occasion, just like real doctors do for their patients and those they care about on a daily basis. Arachnophobia is a fun movie and very silly, but it’s guaranteed to get under the skin of at least half of its audience, and they’ll all be rooting for the doc to save the day.

Patch Adams (1998)

While doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers are essential to the medical industry, clowns have made some positive contributions in their own right. In Ancient Greece, they played a part in the medical process after it was discovered that the jolly pranksters lifted the moods of patients, which in turn sped up their recovery or helped distract them from their unfortunate situation. Since then, clown doctors have become commonplace in children’s hospitals, and the real Patch Adams is a big part of that legacy.

There is also a very good movie about the life and work of Patch Adams, starring the late, great Robin Williams as a man brought back from the brink of suicide because he finds purpose in life helping people. The real Patch Adams hated the movie because it eschewed his beliefs in favor of commercial gain, but at least it shed some light on medical clowns, and Williams’ character is portrayed as heroic and admirable.

Patch Adams is a well-meaning, feel-good movie, even if the film isn’t 100 percent accurate in regards to the actual beliefs of its central subject.

Something the Lord Made (2004)

Based on the Washingtonian magazine article “Like Something the Lord Made” by Katie McCabe, this made-for-television gem tells the story of the relationship between Alfred Blalock (Alan Rickman) and Vivien Thomas (Mos Def), from pairing up during the Depression to their final days working together.

Despite their often volatile partnership, both figures were pioneers in the field of heart surgery, having tackled the Blue Baby Syndrome condition and making breakthroughs that benefited their entire field as a result. However, due to the racial climate at the time, Thomas wasn’t given the credit he deserved until much later, which makes this story quite infuriating at times.

That said, Something the Lord Made highlights the importance of two real heroes of medical history, and their story deserves to be more well known.

I Am Legend (2007)

While I wouldn’t recommend this movie to any dog lover, it’s still a great post-apocalyptic thriller about one man’s effort to find a cure for a virus that’s turned humanity into bloodthirsty monsters. Will Smith plays the scientist who’s proven to be immune to the disease. He spends his days sending out radio signals in the hope of finding other survivors while simultaneously trying to find a cure that will save the world. I Am Legend is a story about humankind’s ability to persevere through the darkest times, and it’s a reminder of how scientists will always be there for people, trying to find answers, even when all hope seems lost.

Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders (2008)

Doctors Without Borders is a humanitarian medical organization that specializes in providing care and treatment to those suffering in conflict zones and countries affected by endemic diseases. This emotional and compelling documentary chronicles the interweaving stories of some of the organization’s doctors working in wartorn African nations, amid the struggles, chaos, and harsh working conditions they’re forced to contend with. More than anything, though, Living in Emergency sheds some light on those brave people who believe that healthcare should be a human right, and the fact they’re more than willing to put themselves in danger to put those beliefs into practice is nothing short of amazing.

Contagion (2011)

Warner Bros.

Nine years after its original release, Steven Soderbergh’s thriller has found a new life in 2020 courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic. Film fans have been stress-watching the movie, possibly because they think they’ll gain some answers from it, or perhaps because the current disease has instilled them with a need to see their anxieties reflected on the screen. The disease in Contagion is more extreme than the novel coronavirus, and it’s up to a group of intrepid government health officials to find a way to contain it. The movie promotes the idea of trusting the experts and denouncing skeptics who don’t understand the facts, even if they have access to a wide and influential platform. Maybe that’s the lesson everyone should learn from Contagion: listen to the experts.

The Physician (2013)

This one follows a surgeon’s apprentice in 11th century Persia who must pretend to be Jewish in order to study at a medical school that does not admit Christians. The Physician is about one man’s desire to become a healer and the lengths he’s willing to go to in order to do that. The region is full of religious extremism and prejudice, and the young doctor risks dire consequences simply because he believes in gaining the best medical knowledge to help others. Don’t go into this one expecting much in the way of historical accuracy, but as far as movies about good doctors go, The Physician is entertaining.

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Mel Gibson’s Oscar-nominated anti-war movie is based on the true story of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), a World War II army medic who refused to bear arms on the battlefield. Instead, he chose to tend to the wounds of the soldiers in action, putting himself into danger as a result. Doss was the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without engaging in combat, and this movie is an entertaining portrait of his life. Hacksaw Ridge contains a nice mix of heartwarming sappiness and gore-splattered carnage, but it does a great job of highlighting the bravery of military medics.

Virus (2019)

This movie is based on the Nipah epidemic that rocked India in 2018. The outbreak occurred in Kozhikode and Malappuram districts of Kerala and claimed 17 lives, but thanks to the heroic efforts of individuals in the area, the virus was contained. The film is a dramatized retelling of the events that focuses on the people and professionals who risked their lives to care for the infected and prevent the pandemic from spreading even further. Virus is a harrowing movie in many ways, but it’s also quite optimistic as it shows how people become unified and humanitarian during a crisis.

Kieran Fisher: Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.