The Human Body in Pictures—Jacob Sarnoff

Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Miriam Posner. Dr. Posner is the Digital Humanities program coordinator and a member of the core DH faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her Ph.D., from Yale University, is in Film Studies and American Studies. She is one of the confirmed participants in the upcoming April 2016 workshop Images and Texts in Medical History: An Introduction to Methods, Tools, and Data from the Digital Humanities, an event funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, hosted by the NLM, and made possible through cooperation with and support of Virginia Tech, The Wellcome Library and The Wellcome Trust.

As a historian of medicine’s visual culture, I’ve seen some weird films. But The Blood Vessels and Their Functions (1924–1925) still took me aback. What would possess someone to mount an infant’s veins on a board and inflate them with air?

The film is one reel of a six-reel movie atlas, The Human Body in Pictures, that surgeon Jacob Sarnoff (1886–1961) produced between 1920 and 1924. Sold alongside a textbook and a set of slides, the series was designed as an education tool for physicians-in-training. For The Blood Vessels and Their Function, he attempted a cinematic first: to dramatize the workings of the heart, he removed the veins from a day-old infant, mounted them on a board, and devised an air-pumping system—which he termed “Pneumo-Viscera”—to push air through the circulatory system.

Sarnoff was no dabbler. A busy surgeon who helped found Brooklyn’s Maimonides Medical Center, he spent some $8,000 to $10,000 a year on his filmmaking: “practically all my earnings, with the exceptions of what I had to spend to live on and to support my family.” And he was prolific: his System of General Surgery in Motion Pictures (1932), the series that succeeded The Human Body in Pictures, included more than 200 reels depicting 300 operations.

Title page of The Human Body In Pictures and a labeled illustration of a Dissection of the Heart and Blood Vessels

Jacob Sarnoff, The Human Body in Pictures (ca. 1927) is a small book printed to supplement the silent motion picture series, and provide material for spoken commentary to accompany screenings. The figure on the left is the “Pneumo-Viscera.”

While The Blood Vessels and Their Functions struck me as strange, it makes a certain kind of sense. Sarnoff wanted to show the entire vascular system, and the system in its entirety is simply not viewable in situ. He had to lift it out of the body to show how blood vessels connect to each other.

In fact, this problem of the body’s illegibility has been a constant source of frustration. Human flesh was too dark, too messy, and too particular for cameramen to get good shots. “Stronger and whiter light down deeper and darker holes” was the refrain of the anatomical filmmaker.

Labeled Illustration of the Aorta and it's main branches.

Diagram of the arteries, Jacob Sarnoff, The Human Body in Pictures (ca. 1927), 71 (taken from the artwork for a still from the film).

That problem inspired some innovation. In 1908, a London hospital built a special chamber for recording surgical operations, “whither patients will be conveyed by electric elevators, and a light has been discovered by which photographs can be taken in all kinds of weather.” In 1921, a Berlin surgeon mounted the camera in a tube projecting from the ceiling of the operation room, controlling it through an electric foot pedal beneath the operating table. In 1932, Washington, DC cameramen stood on stepladders to record operations performed on tables that could be raised or lowered to obtain the proper distance from the camera. In 1935, French surgeons outfitted an operating room with a ceiling made of curved stainless steel, the cameras stationed behind glass portholes. Other surgeon-cinematographers turned to mirrored operating theaters, windowed ceilings, cameras suspended from cables, and illuminated surgical instruments.

They also turned to animation, as Sarnoff does in The Blood Vessels and Their Functions. As medical filmmaking grew in popularity and sophistication, animation took on increasing importance. For all the photograph’s detail, photography failed to capture fundamental systems and processes. The animated diagram, in contrast, combined movement with legibility. Indeed, for many physicians, the animated diagram was more accurate than the photograph, since it superimposed a simplified, actionable diagram over the unworkable messiness of real human flesh.

Sarnoff’s “Pneumo-Viscera” helps to schematize the human body, much as animation does, by turning human flesh into something akin to an animated diagram. And it connects the pieces, too. As the air travels through the veins, the viewer can see how the pieces of the human body are linked together.

For surgeons like Sarnoff, the value of film wasn’t only, or even chiefly, its ability to mechanically reproduce reality, but its ability to function as a dynamic collage: to offer students of surgery a lesson on how to move back and forth seamlessly between the messy substance of reality and the neat diagrams that populate anatomical atlases.

Labeled illustration of the parts of the digestive tract.

Diagram of “The passage of food through the digestive tract,” Jacob Sarnoff, The Human Body in Pictures (ca. 1927), 15 (taken from the artwork for the film). An animated diagram superimposed on live action.

The Blood Vessels and Their Functions has even more to teach us about the act of capturing human anatomy on film. Sarnoff aspired to produce not just any set of films, but a definitive atlas of the human body in motion. In Sarnoff’s imagination, medical educators would turn again and again to his film reels to demonstrate how the human body works.

Sarnoff wasn’t alone in this belief. The Historical Audiovisual Collection of the National Library of Medicine didn’t start out as “historical.” In the middle decades of the 20th century, when people began to collect films for what was then the Surgeon General’s Library, they intended to make the collection “available to teachers in the army and medical schools and the profession, just as the books in the… Library are, for study and reference.”

It makes sense: the body is universal and timeless. Once images of it are secured, why should we ever need new ones? And yet The Human Body in Pictures quickly fell out of use. Like most of the other films in the historical collections of the National Library of Medicine, it is now more valuable for what it can tell us about history than as a teaching tool for medical education.

To watch The Blood Vessels and Their Functions, and to read a longer essay version of this blog post, go to NLM’s Medical Movies on the Web. Both this blog post and the essay are adapted from Miriam Posner, Depth Perception: Narrative and the Body in American Medical Films (University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming, 2016)