Photograph of an operating room with camera and lights.

A Bit of Hollywood in the Operating Room

Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Caitjan Gainty, PhD from Kings College, London to share insights on the work of obstetrician and filmmaker Joseph B. DeLee.  Her essay explores two films in DeLee’s The Science and Art of Obstetrics series held in the NLM historical audiovisual collection and now highlighted in our Medicine on Screen: Films and Essays from NLM project.

In November of 1927, the obstetrician Carl Henry Davis wrote to his Chicago colleague Joseph Bolivar DeLee to discuss a request he had received from a “Mr. Fleckles” of the International Medical Film Corporation. “Fleckles”—most likely Maurice Fleckels, who was well-known in Chicago filmmaking circles—had inquired as to whether Davis was interested in editing a collection of Viennese obstetrical training films, known as the “Wertheim Films,” for the American obstetrical community. Recalling that like himself, DeLee dabbled in obstetric filmmaking, Davis suggested a collaborative effort.

Photographic portrait, mounted on a card and signed by the DeLee.
Joseph B. De Lee, 1925
Blank & Stoller, Inc. National Library of Medicine #101413486

But though the Wertheim films had been making the rounds of American obstetric groups throughout the mid-1920s, making a splash not least because they cost an astounding $100,000 to make, DeLee’s answer was a resounding no. His response to Davis panned the films as “rotten” and, indeed, such a “disgrace to the city of Vienna,” that the “whole set including the negatives” ought to be destroyed. Still, while he would not help with the salvaging of these films, DeLee did offer to make an entirely new “set of real American obstetric films,” to be used for medical teaching. What’s more, he informed Davis, he had already written directly to Fleckels to tell him so.

Six weeks later, DeLee was already hard at work, apparently having left both Davis and Fleckels behind. In a scenario to be repeated over the course of his filmmaking career, DeLee rang out 1927 on the doorbells of potential backers for his own project. Late December found him at the doorstep of one of his most faithful patrons, Florence Spoor, seeking a letter of introduction to the film producer George K. Spoor, Florence’s cousin by marriage. DeLee had heard that Spoor’s briefly successful Chicago production company Essanay had closed, and he saw an opportunity to pick up a professional motion-picture camera on the cheap. The family introduction was made, and Spoor loaned DeLee two Bell & Howell 35mm cameras, generously including the services of his cameraman, the well-known Conrad Luperti, to run them.

Photograph of an operating room with camera and lights.
DeLee’s first birth room/movie set as it appeared in his article, c.1933
Photograph from Joseph DeLee, “Sound motion pictures in obstetrics,” Journal of the Biological Photographic Association (1933–1934) 2, pp. 60–68, 65, used with permission of the board of directors of the Journal of Biocommunication

DeLee was no filmmaking dilettante. In his follow-up letter to Florence Spoor, he noted that even before the arrival of the new equipment he had already, “fitted up the largest birth room…at the hospital as a complete moving picture studio, with Mazda and Cooper Hewitt lights and 16 mm film equipment.”  His early works had included a film (which he reportedly screened at the Chicago Gynecological Society in 1928) showing a case of hydrocephalus, which concluded with a gruesome-sounding “picture of the baby with its head refilled with the two quarts of water removed at operation.” Another followed a woman with a uterine fibroid through late pregnancy and birth. There was also one in the pipeline which would, as he described to another correspondent, follow the pregnancy of a “rachitic dwarf,” a woman whose growth had been stunted by rickets. DeLee explained that these “cinematographic case records” could be used for small classes or presentations, but their more important functions were as documentation, a visual remembrance of the unusual cases “nature had provided.”

Upon the receipt of his new cameras and their operator, however, DeLee turned his attention primarily to making the “real American obstetric films,” that would, unlike the Wertheim films, truly convey “instruction from teacher to pupil.”  He moved quickly; by 1929, he had finished his first talkie, called The Science and Art of Obstetrics. By the early 1930s, he had made five more teaching films, many for his Science and Art of Obstetrics series, and had five more in preparation. He had toured Hollywood sets, “cross-examined cameramen,” experimented with sound, animation, slow motion, microphotography, and color. He had written scripts, prepared title cards, held table reads and rehearsals, recorded sound, directed cuts and editing, improvised sound effects, and generally learned the ins and outs of producing and directing high-quality films. In fact, the only things that separated DeLee from professionals on Hollywood movie lots, as he told an audience in the early 1930s, were his nonexistent profit margins. DeLee estimated that while costs had already exceeded $30,000, profits—chiefly on rentals of his films—came to a dismal $800. “Therefore,” he explained, “I can still write for the Amateur Movie Makers although I work almost entirely with professional film and apparatus.” DeLee’s assessment of himself as an underfunded film professional was widely shared: at the Detroit premiere of his talkie, on the “modern” method of the Caesarean operation, DeLee was lauded in the Detroit Times as nothing short of “the world’s foremost moving picture enthusiast” with knowledge of films equal to that of the “smartest young men on Hollywood movie lots.”…

To read the full essay and to see the films go to NLM’s Medicine on Screen, a curated portal including original research on selected films from NLM’s collection.

Caitjan Gainty holds a BA from Wellesley College, an MPH from Boston University, and a PhD from the University of Chicago. She is currently a Lecturer in the History of Science, Technology & Medicine at King’s College, London. Her research and writing have focused on the history of medicine and health care in the twentieth century, with a special interest in medical film and filmmaking. She is finishing a book on the ‘industrial’ history of American medicine, which examines how the early twentieth century radical redesign of the factory—the assembly lines of Henry Ford, the efficiency studies of Frederick Winslow Taylor—spilled over into medicine, critically and powerfully, but largely invisibly, reorienting its values, goals and trajectory.


  1. yeah, its look amazing indeed the lights thanks Caitjan Gainty for sharing and welcome to the community indeed… I have to ask how’s your Ph.D. journey had been?

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