Medical illustration of the muscles, bones and tendons of a hand.

Medicine On Screen: Films and Essays from the National Library of Medicine

By Sarah Eilers ~

This week, the National Library of Medicine introduces Medicine on Screen: Films and Essays from NLM, a curated, freely-accessible portal presenting digitized historical titles from the Library’s world-renowned audiovisuals collection. An original essay accompanies each film, exploring the social, cultural, and medical milieu of the work, as well as cinematic techniques, the agendas of directors or producers, and other contextual details. Providing a rich resource for historians, filmmakers, researchers, and the merely curious, the site is a reimagining of Medical Movies on the Web, which debuted in 2013. Medicine on Screen offers fresh design, content, and functionality based on helpful feedback from users of the audiovisual collections, including researchers, educators, and the public.

The world of medical filmmaking is a complex and fascinating one. Medical films of the past are not just a window into health and disease. They also illuminate society and culture; politics, race, and class; and fear and hope. In Plastic Reconstruction of Face, the camera rolls as facial masks molded from copper are fitted to hide grievous injuries suffered by French soldiers of the Great War. Men would not take a walk outside—some wouldn’t even go home to their families—so hideous did they feel. The maker of masks in Paris? Not a male physician, but a female sculptor from Boston, Anna Coleman Ladd. Read Zoe Beloff’s essay for more on this unique film.

NLM holds one of the world’s largest collections of medical films and videos, spanning more than a century and numbering nearly 40,000 titles. Among these are an estimated 8,000 cataloged titles deemed historically significant. Many are rare; in some cases, NLM holds the only surviving copy.

Documentary filmmakers have long used this unique collection, including researchers for Ask Dr. Ruth, a film  that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2019 (Delirio Films, 2019) and The Emperor of All Maladies (ArkMedia/PBS, 2015), based on Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s best-selling book.

Medical illustration of the muscles, bones and tendons of a hand.
Anatomical animation by Frank Armitage
National Library of Medicine #8801174A

Medicine on Screen launches with an essay by Dr. Oliver Gaycken of the University of Maryland about the film Anatomical Animation, by Frank Armitage. Armitage was a medical illustrator, Disney animator, and muralist, and he narrates this beautifully rendered journey through the human body.

Coming later in 2019 is A Bit of Hollywood in the Operating Room by Caitjan DeGainty of King’s College London, examining the films of obstetrician and dedicated amateur filmmaker Dr. Joseph DeLee. Gaycken and Gainty will join the ranks of other notable essayists, including Miriam Posner, professor of information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles; Mark Micale, historian of medicine at the University of Illinois; and Devin Orgeron, formerly of North Carolina State University.

On Thursday, February 28, Dr. Gaycken will speak at the kickoff of the 2019 NLM History of Medicine Lecture Series. His talk, Fantastic Voyages Through the Historical Audio-Visual Collections at the National Library of Medicine, will address not only his work with the Frank Armitage film, but also with other moving images in the NLM collection, including several titles distributed by the National Medical Audiovisual Center and a large set of films on global health and population control produced in the 1960s and ‘70s. His lecture will be live-streamed globally, and archived, by NIH VideoCasting.

An informal portrait of Sarah Eilers.Sarah Eilers is the Manager of Historical Audiovisuals in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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