Medicine on Screen
NLM Relaunches Vintage Movies with Overview Lecture
From virtual travel and art imagery to family planning and the sexual revolution, you can find films featuring nearly any theme imaginable among the almost 40,000 titles in the National Library of Medicine’s storehouse of audiovisual materials. Recently, NLM relaunched its website dedicated to such resources with a lecture, “Fantastic Voyages Through the Historical Audiovisual Collections at the National Library of Medicine,” by Dr. Oliver Gaycken, a historian of cinema and media with an emphasis on the intersection of science and medicine at the University of Maryland.
“The NLM’s extraordinary collection of AV materials attests to the presence of a largely unknown history of the 20th century where medical media educated and persuaded untold millions of patients and doctors, and documented diseases, innovations and procedures,” said Gaycken, describing the movie trove’s range. “Together these films demonstrate the variety of approaches to communicating medical knowledge and the enduring value of the medical profession’s AV records.”
For sheer art appreciation alone, for example, consider A Voyage Through the History of Anatomy with Frank Armitage, the longtime Disney animator and medical illustrator.
“I like to feel that there can be great beauty in medical art, a beauty that really goes hand in hand with science as we explore the infinite inner spaces of the human body,” intones narrator Armitage in the opening sequence of the late 1960s/early 1970s film presentation to the Association of Medical Illustrators. “Here we move deeper through spectacular caverns of the heart and we feel like explorers in this fantastic anatomical world.”
The movie lets viewers catch a ride around the animated, colorful corridors of the organ, guided by the unseen artist’s voice.
“Armitage’s evocative commentary helps to make a general point about medical media’s ability to provide virtual experiences and how the medium of film can multiply the experiences to which individuals can be exposed,” said Gaycken, whose lecture title also revisits another Armitage product, the 1966 Oscar-winning sci-fi thriller Fantastic Voyage.
Items in NLM’s AV collection offer historical context as well as commentary on the times, Gaycken points out.
In Technique of Laparoscopy (1979), an all-female surgical team taught practitioners how to do a technique. Communicating Family Planning: Speak. They Are Listening (1974) was part of a global communication strategy to address issues such as overpopulation, family planning, nutrition, sanitation, poverty and the environment in developing nations.
“These films are part of the story of how globalization and public health media developed in tandem over the course of the latter half of the 20th century,” Gaycken explained. “They show a dynamic I see throughout this collection: On the one hand [there’s] a heavy-handed Western intervention in the lives of people from different cultural backgrounds, but on the other hand, a global feminist intervention to provide women with control over a central feature of their lives—their reproductive health. Taken together these films illustrate the shrinking world of globalism with the U.S. a hegemonic source for knowledge.”
In answer to a question about some of the movies’ male American narration for an arguably largely female audience in a developing country, Gaycken said, “There is a kind of uneasy quality to some of the films, at least to how some of the dynamics are being stated and that’s one of the dimensions that’s crucial to acknowledge.
“Part of the tendency might be to see them as helplessly stuck in a mode that is different from the current moment,” he explained. “But I tend to see them as films we are in dialogue with right now, with elements that have become troubling with time [but also with] elements that have remained enduringly helpful.”
The films helped serve the social progress and public health goals of northern Virginia’s Airlie Center, a farm retreat/conference center that “Life magazine called ‘an island of thought,’” Gaycken noted. “[Many of these movies] allowed for the inclusion of otherwise excluded perspectives, notably those of women.”
The 1960s-era center established its own documentary filmmaking division. Screenwriter-director Miriam Bucher of the center is credited on several of the films, including Speak.
“Her example demonstrates how medical films provided a venue for a woman’s voice to be heard on the critical issue of reproductive health,” said Gaycken. “You can hear it pretty clearly in the conclusion to Speak.”
“A young wife need not die worn out by childbirth,” the narrator says in the final clip. “…A child can grow up in a household in which there is room for love…A woman can come to know more of life than childbearing, drudgery, the threat of early death…”
Concluding his look at medical movies in the NLM collection, Gaycken focused on a group of training films for physicians and psychologists providing counseling for sexual dysfunction.
The movies were made to teach interview and observation techniques, he pointed out, but also “register the aftermath and ongoing repercussions of what has come to be called the ‘sexual revolution’ in the U.S.” In the final clip, both therapists-acting-as-patients are smiling, having agreed that knowing each other’s perspective cleared up the problems they were experiencing.
Regardless of what sparks your movie-watching fancy, Gaycken urges you to check out NLM’s array of AV materials. “Here’s hoping we can all take a lesson on the importance of mutual acknowledgment and apply it to taking a two-way street between archives and their patrons.”
Gaycken’s full lecture is archived online at https://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=28986&bhcp=1. Visit NLM’s audiovisual collection at https://medicineonscreen.nlm.nih.gov/.