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Public Health Films Collection, History of Medicine Division

National Library of Medicine

Collection Profile

New technologies open up the world in new and unexpected ways. So it was with films—a technology of the end of the 19th century that became a defining mark of the 20th. The ability of movies to entertain and to instruct was clear. Over the course of the century filmmakers grasped the ability of film to persuade and to motivate. The rhetorical force of films, and the connection between entertainment and public service, were new things to the medium's new masters.

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) holds the country's largest collection of historical medical films, numbering about 14,000. At the center of the collection are public health films, dating from the 1910s to the present. The collection comes from many sources, including government agencies—notably the Public Health Service, and especially the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Other films come from private health organizations, and from groups such as the American Dental Association. As these institutions move their productions from film to video and digital, they often offer NLM their older collections, and thus the holdings continue to grow.

Throughout the 20th century the rhetorical power of the cinema was formed and developed, and in these films that power was marshaled for public health. Indeed, one of the division's manuscript collections, the Adolf Nichtenhauser collection, chronicles the efforts of Navy medicine to study and to harness the potential of medical films. Public health films provided the opportunity to change people's attitudes and behaviors. Movies showed them how to do new things, such as going in for a physical, and celebrated heroic efforts, such as pushing back yellow fever in the tropics. In the war, these films were produced and promoted to keep both troops and the home front ready to work and to serve. Films connected medical research with better health, and asked people to be generous with their support. The medium also provided other, more subtle messages about American society: assumptions about gender, status, and race helped structure the way that public health was "done" in the past, as these films manifestly show.

The library is using this collection in new ways, for new audiences. Documentary filmmakers—producing for PBS, BBC, Discovery Channel, and others—have long come to the library, and recently film scholars and medical historians have as well. The library has a program to bring university teachers to the library to study films, obtain reference copies, work them into and use them in their courses, and have their course syllabi posted on the NLM Web site. The films are rich resources for the classroom, helping students learn about modern medicine, American and global societies, and cultural communication in the 20th century. As part of interpretive programs on medicine and society, the library is screening these films at the National Academy of Sciences and the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, at meetings of the American Association for the History of Medicine, as well as at the library. They show up in NLM's exhibits. To bring the collection to wider audiences, the History of Medicine Division is selecting some of its films for a prototype for a new DVD series—the first offering will be "The Public Health Film Goes to War."

Collection Profile and Overview: Paul Theerman
Illustrations: Video Transfer Incorporated

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