A colorful illustratoin of microscopic and crossectional detail of tissue.

Fantastic Voyages through the Historical Audio-Visual Collections at the National Library of Medicine

Oliver Gaycken, PhD, will speak on February 28, 2019 at 2:00 in the Lister Hill Auditorium at the National Library of Medicine on “Fantastic Voyages through the Historical Audio-Visual Collections at the National Library of Medicine.” As part of a week-long celebration of the release of Medicine On Screen, we are happy to bring you this interview with Dr. Gaycken, Associate Professor, Department of English, Core Faculty, Film and Comparative Literature Programs, University of Maryland.

Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What constitutes a typical workday for you at the University of Maryland, especially given that you seem to wear several hats?

Formal portrait.
Oliver Gaycken, PhD
Courtesy University of Maryland

Oliver Gaycken: I grew up in Oxford, Mississippi, where my parents worked at the University. I moved away for college, a process that eventually led to my current position at the University of Maryland (with stops in Princeton, Chicago, Berlin, and Philadelphia along the way). I have, I suppose, three typical workdays—the teaching day, the research/writing day, and the administrative day, although a single day can contain all three elements. The English department at Maryland, as is often the case at large universities, contains numerous areas of specialization, and film studies is such an area, which is a shared unit with the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures. Comparative Literature, too, is a program with an inclination toward media studies, so even though it may seem that I wear several hats, they’re all really just different aspects of the same thing—I see myself as an historian of cinema and media, with an emphasis on the intersection of science and medicine.

CN: How did you originally become interested in the history of science and medicine?

OG: My interest in the history of medicine and science goes back to when I was an undergraduate, where I encountered some early physiology films via an article by Lisa Cartwright. These films—I recall images from a Ludwig Braun film about the heartbeat of the dog as well as stills from Edison’s infamous Electrocution of an Elephant—were novel and fascinating. There was also at the time a particular interest in the period of early cinema, in part due to the upcoming 1995 centenary—Marta Braun’s book on Etienne-Jules Marey was a memorable example. These influences, and I should also mention Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer here, led me to write a thesis about Helmholtz’s invention of the ophthalmoscope. And I’ve kept working in this area since then.

CN: Your upcoming talk “Fantastic Voyages” will explore approaches to communicating medical knowledge found in NLM historical audiovisual collections. What sets film apart as a tool in medicine? How are medical films a window into other aspects of society and culture?

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 was a small book printed to supplement a silent motion picture series, and provide material for spoken commentary to accompany screenings. Learn more on Medicine on Screen.

OG: I’ve increasingly been convinced that it’s risky to think too much about what sets film apart when it comes to medicine. Film certainly has unique characteristics specific to its medial form—it can reproduce movement, it can allow movements to be archived, it can speed up or slow down movement—but film rarely functions in isolation in medical practice, especially in research settings, which is different from how films works in the domain of entertainment, where it is designed to function as a self-contained product. Thinking about film separately from other media in the context of medicine means potentially missing how closely connected these films usually are to a host of other media—verbal texts, still images, three-dimensional models, etc. Indeed, film is frequently only a part of a larger research or communications project, so to look only at a film can result in a distorted view of what the researchers were doing. Medical films can of course provide significant insights into the socio-cultural dimensions of medicine, and they are only now beginning to be understood and appreciated for their vast contributions to the history of medicine, but, again, they’re seldom stand-alone objects.

CN: You’ve made extensive use of the historical audiovisual collections here at NLM. Is there a particular item that stands out for you or that has been especially relevant in your work? Anything you’re excited about working with in the future?

A colorful illustratoin of microscopic and crossectional detail of tissue.
Anatomical animation by Frank Armitage
National Library of Medicine #8801174A

OG: While I’ve worked on several aspects of the NLM collections, I feel that I’m just getting started; the historical audiovisual collections contain such an abundance of fascinating material. In fact, all of the work at NLM that I have done so far has been driven by projects that arose independent of my self-declared research. The essay on Frank Armitage that is part of Medicine on Screen comes out of a collaboration with a UMD student’s independent study course on medical media; the research I did on the Ortho/University of Pennsylvania sexual-education series came about as a way to bring word of the NLM’s collection to the Orphans community; and my peek into a few of the Johns Hopkins/USIAD global public health films was prompted by conversations with Sarah Eilers, the amazing NLM archivist. So, obviously, I’m distractible. It’s easy to become lured down a rabbit hole or two here, though.

CN: Do you have any advice for educators or researchers who want to work with films as a primary resource?

OG: A first bit of advice would be that film requires more preparation to incorporate successfully into a pedagogical situation than you might think. Films, especially entertainment films, resist analysis; they’re created to draw spectators in and enclose them in the world of their story. In order to teach with a film, you first have to break through that default position. You have to think carefully about how to present the film. Is the film short enough to show in its entirety during the class? Or do you have a separate screening beforehand, then show selected sequences during the class period? You also will have to gain a certain degree of technical proficiency in order to present the film in a way that’s pedagogically useful, ranging from bookmarks to making clips. Finally, are there additional materials that you need to present to help your students make sense of what they’re seeing? This last point is especially important for medical films, since they may not be immediately comprehensible without contextualization. There is a gulf between simply playing a film for students and effectively analyzing it for/with them. Of course, the essays and additional materials on Medicine on Screen are a good place to start!

Oliver Gaycken’s presentation is part of our ongoing history of medicine lecture series, which promotes awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All lectures are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.

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