“Come with me, into the visual instruction room”

By Michael Sappol

A boy and a dentist sit in a dark room. The dentist shows the boy a model of teeth and a row of dental x-rays.A dentist invites a young boy: “Come with me, into the visual instruction room.” And with this, Ask Your Dentist, a silent dental film from around 1930 and a recent addition to NLM’s Medical Movies on Web, stages a cinematic revue of instructional techniques and tactics. In the course of 13 minutes and 26 seconds, we see: blackboards; plaster casts and models; x-rays; exhibition displays; a projector projecting film footage; a tour of a laboratory; a look through a microscope; animated cartoons; animated diagrams; stop-time animation; a case history acted by actors; and the page of a published book. The parade of instructional devices is the message.

Film still: Cartoon animation shows General Germ at the head of an army germ devils marching through the streets pf the body, invading different parts. A street sign reads: 'To the eyes.'Ask Your Dentist does not choose among them, it takes an all-of-the-above approach. Some segments are aimed at children, others at adults. Some parts are fictional, others straight exposition. This is naïve, haphazard, make-it-up-as-you-go-along filmmaking. The parts seem stitched together (and may actually be stitched together from different sources). In viewing Ask Your Dentist, we are taken back to a moment before the conventions of educational film-making have been consolidated. Ask Your Dentist adapts and assimilates a hodge-podge of media technologies, genres, and tactics taken from books, magazines, exhibition displays, classroom instruction, and demonstrations, and also motion pictures (a technology which was then only about three decades old).

The film came to the National Library of Medicine in the mid-1980s. At the time, the American Dental Association was burdened with a collection of some 700-odd films, made between 1920 and 1970, and in various states of wear and decay. The ADA offered its collection to the NLM which accepted about 300 films (what happened to the others, we know not). Of the acceptees, only a few were projectable, the rest needed conservation. Ask Your Dentist was one of the projectable ones, but still in poor condition: warped, scratched and full of splices.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, dentistry loved the movies; the American Dental Association became a prolific producer and distributor of motion pictures. Ask Your Dentist was one of many offerings. The ADA distributed it via mail as a rental and, like many film rentals, copies were shown repeatedly and handled roughly. The NLM appears to have the sole surviving copy, and it is a bit of a mystery object. The head of the film is broken off (heads tend to break because of stress due to repeated threading onto reels), so Ask Your Dentist lacks title and credits footage. Because of that (and because the ADA did not retain any relevant records), we don’t know who made it, and when and where it was made or shown. (In the parlance of film scholarship, it is classified as an “orphan film.”) We do know that, starting in the mid-1930s, the ADA rented it out in 16mm and 35mm versions, at $2 a pop (as “A Beneficial Circle Production”), and recommended it “for high school and adult groups” (even though the children on screen appear to be pre-adolescent). It was not the only thing listed for rental: the ADA also offered pamphlets, “lantern” slide shows, posters, three-dimensional models, and other films.

A catalogue listing for Ask Your Dentist

Ask Your Dentist was listed, along with pamphlets, posters, models, lantern-slide sets, and other films, in the Journal of the American Dental Association 22.2 (1935): p.1978.

We can understand the ADA’s rental program by looking at the larger historical context. It was a time when the power of new media, and the ideal of the total media campaign, had recently been demonstrated in the propaganda apparatus of the Great War. In everyday life, the powers of modern media were everywhere evident. Dentistry lived in a world of proliferating illustrated newspapers, magazines, books, pamphlets and advertisements, featuring eye-catching line drawings, cartoons, and photographs—and,  most exciting of all, motion pictures.

The sights and images of modernity were impossible to ignore. And, not surprisingly, a certain group of people began to theorize them, and professionalize around them: the “visual instruction” movement. Leading educators and educational psychologists argued that “the modern school” required a modern pedagogy based on the latest and most potent visual technologies:

“Science and invention have opened up vast possibilities in the creation of…materials for teaching purposes…. The invention of the photograph and of photoengraving has made possible the illustration of magazines, newspapers, books and school texts on a scale undreamed of heretofore…. The invention of the microscope and telescope have opened our eyes to the existence of worlds that were unknown a short time ago…. The motion picture with and without sound has become a major factor in modern life for the dissemination of information and ideas…”—F. Dean McClusky et al., The Place of Visual Instruction in the Modern Schools, 1930.

It was a compelling argument. In the 1920s and 30s, ambitious dentists, many of them active in the American Dental Association and city and state dental societies, took up the banner of visual instruction.

Of course, we also live in a world of proliferating visuality, and have our own new media. If we want to entertain, shape behavior, and audiovisually instruct a mass audience, we feel obliged to use computers, Powerpoint presentations, touchscreens, the Internet, World Wide Web, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, etc. If we produce texts and images and diagrams of the type that often appear in books and magazines and posters, we incorporate those things into our new media. And, if we do resort to print and posters and other displays, we try to make them look like something that might appear on the web. That’s a lot like what the makers of Ask Your Dentist were doing. Ask Your Dentist, then, directs our attention to the long history and rhetorical salience of media as media: media repackaging and repurposing media. Which happened long ago in the 1920s and 30s. And continues on into the 21st century.

More information about Ask Your Dentist can be found on Medical Movies on the Web, a curated portal that features selected motion pictures from the world-renowned collection of the National Library of Medicine. You can also watch the film on NLM’s YouTube channel or in NLM’s Digital Collections.

profile portrait of Michael Sappol in ChicagoMichael Sappol is a historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.