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Medical Movies 1918-1965

Thu 17 October 2019

An evening of short films from the collection of the National Library of Medicine, hosted by Michael Sappol, PhD (History of Science & Ideas, Uppsala University, Sweden; emeritus scholar-in-residence and curator-historian, National Library of Medicine).

In the closing years of the 19th century, the invention of the moving picture was greeted with wild enthusiasm. The new medium/technology, it was believed, would transform — revolutionize — pedagogy, science, popular entertainment, and nearly everything else. In medicine the enthusiasm was especially marked.

Biomedical researchers, surgeons, dentists, nurses, psychiatrists, occupational and physical therapists, and specialists in infectious disease, cancer, child development and emergency medicine, became film-makers and film-screeners, made films on every conceivable topic. Medical movies were shot in laboratories, clinics, field hospitals, morgues, schools, military barracks, city streets, remote mountain, jungle villages, and Hollywood soundstages. The filmmakers used a variety of techniques: x-ray cinematography, cine-micrography, live action and cartoon animation. Genres were equally varied. There were fictionalized stories, documentaries, training films, clinical demonstrations, animal studies, health education, and propaganda films.

Today, the National Library of Medicine holds about 17,000 motion pictures, going from the silent era to the digital present. Some are charming, others difficult to watch; some are made for specialists, others for the broadest general audience; some are brilliant works of filmmaking, others are utterly incompetent. Nearly all are of interest, and many are compelling. This program presents an evening of short films made between 1918 and 1965, from the collection of the National Library of Medicine, with commentary by historian Michael Sappol. Subjects include psychiatry, rehabilitation, autopsy, child development and infectious disease.