Detail of the 1981 Psychological Cinema Register catalog.

Psychological Cinema

By Amanda Maple (Pennsylvania State University) and Sarah Eilers (NLM) ~

From Experimentally produced neurotic behavior in the rat to Prefrontal lobotomy in chronic schizophrenia, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) holds more than 40 films associated with a longtime film distribution concern called the Psychological Cinema Register (PCR).


Films associated with the PCR are among the most-requested at NLM. This is unsurprising given that mental health and illness are enduring topics of interest to the researchers in the history of medicine and science who work with our collections. The Library at one point held a total of 55 PCR films, but over the years some have been withdrawn, possibly because they were intended purely for presentation to health science professionals. NLM has placed two PCR titles, Symptoms in Schizophrenia (1938) and Prefrontal Lobotomy in the Treatment of Mental Disorders (1942) on the NLM Digital Collections site, with more to come. The Library also offers a closer look at Symptoms in Mark S. Micale’s Medicine on Screen essay “The Cinema of Schizophrenia.” A future Medicine on Screen essayist is currently studying three titles from the PCR, including Competition and Dominance Hierarchies in Rats (1940).

Answers in the Archives

The PCR began as a small collection of experimental psychology films assembled in the 1930s by Adelbert Ford, who in 1931 was named the first head of the new psychology department at Lehigh University in eastern Pennsylvania. Between 1929 and 1939, Ford made at least a dozen films as part of his research. His earliest efforts observed the pecking instinct in chicks and analyzed industrial motion at a garment factory.

In 1938, Ford circulated to other psychologists a list of 11 films under the title Motion Picture Demonstrations in Experimental Psychology. In 1939, he renamed his catalog The Psychological Cinema Register, listing 14 films for sale. In 1941, Ford expanded the scope to include psychiatric research films from Johns Hopkins and elsewhere, with 54 films available. Ford solicited films from “workers of reputable standing in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, biology, physiology, education, and the related sciences” on subjects representing “systematic demonstrations of the principles of behavior (or mental phenomena).” The filmmakers received ten percent royalties on sales.

Distribution of the Register was suspended during World War II. At the same time, the war created a demand for training and instructional films on the part of industry and the military. In collaboration with the U.S. Office of War Information and with funding from the U.S. Engineering Science Management War Training Program, the Pennsylvania State College (PSC) established a Motion Picture and Recording Studio in 1942 to produce training films, and an Audio-Visual Aids Library to house, curate, and distribute the films as well as collect and distribute training films produced elsewhere.

PSC Acquires the PCR

In 1944, with a film studio and a library in place, the Pennsylvania State College (PSC) purchased the PCR catalog from Ford and resumed distribution with the 1944-45 issue. Clarence Ray Carpenter, associate professor of psychology in the department of education, arranged the purchase.

Carpenter had a strong interest in instructional films. From 1931 to 1934 he conducted field research on communication behaviors of primates in Panama. He also was a member of the 1937 Asiatic Primate Expedition. While in the field, he filmed primates under study. In 1940, Carpenter joined the Pennsylvania State College, taking leave to serve in the U.S. Army Air Forces as a technical adviser on training films for jungle warfare. His war experience sparked interest in communication among humans as well as primates, with a focus on the effectiveness of motion pictures for education and training. Carpenter continued to publish throughout his career on primatology, learning behavior, and film as an educational technology.

The first Register issue after distribution resumed listed 67 films available for sale or rent from the Audio-Visual Aids Library. They included Psychological and Physiological Silent Films (47), Psychiatric Silent Films (15), and Psychiatric Sound Films (5). An appendix advertised additional rental films not part of the Register but “of possible interest to psychologists.”

With funding from the U.S. Navy, Carpenter went on to establish the Instructional Film Research Program based in Penn State’s department of education, to study film as an educational technology and experiment with instructional film techniques. Carpenter served as the director of the research program, which had issued over sixty technical reports by the time it ceased operation in 1956. The Audio-Visual Aids Library (later Audio-Visual Services) continued to develop its rental and sale collection into the 1990s, distributing a dozen different subject-area catalogs. The phrase “Psychological Cinema Register” was dropped and the psychology-related catalog in later years was called “PCR: Films in the Behavioral Sciences.” The sales and rental operations separated in 1998. Penn State Public Broadcasting took over sales under the brand Penn State Media Sales, and the rental operation was handled by the former Audio-Visual Services under its new name, Media & Technology Support Services.

Thousands of 16mm films were deaccessioned from the Media & Technology Support Services collection in 2011. In 2014, the rental operation ceased and the remaining films and videos were relocated to the Penn State University Libraries collection. Films distributed by the Psychological Cinema Register from the 1930s through the 1960s are no longer a discrete collection at Penn State or elsewhere.

Circulating Again

On the NLM YouTube channel, Prefrontal Lobotomy has garnered more than 93,000 views since its debut on the platform in July 2018. Walter Freeman and James W. Watts are the lobotomists featured in the film. Freeman in particular gained a level of notoriety in the mid-20th century that has barely diminished today. He’s been the subject of books and articles, and has been featured in documentaries and oral histories.

Two men in surgeons clothes look at an X-ray.
Dr. Walter Freeman, left, and Dr. James W. Watts study an X ray before a psychosurgical operation.
Saturday Evening Post, 24 May 1941, pages 18-19 Photography Harris A Ewing

Another PCR-associated title often requested is A Nurse’s Day with the Mentally Ill (1943), which shows a “typical” day for a psychiatric nurse caring for institutionalized patients. This title can be viewed in the History of Medicine Reading Room at NLM but isn’t yet digitized.

Consistent with the interests of our patrons, the National Library of Medicine continues to prioritize the collection of film and video titles dealing with mental health and illness, and to make them available worldwide in NLM Digital Collections.

A lecture on the career of Dr. Walter Freeman will be given at the National Library of Medicine on Thursday, September 19, 2019 at 2 P.M. EST.  Miriam Posner, PhD, will give the annual James H. Cassedy Memorial Lecture on “Scientists’ Mind-Body Problems: Lobotomy, Science, and the Digital Humanities.” Dr. Posner is Assistant Professor in the Information Studies Department at the University of California, Los Angeles.

A formal portrait.Amanda Maple has been music librarian at the Penn State University Libraries since 1994 and provides leadership for their Music & Media Center. Since 2015, she has helped to oversee historical film and video collections that were developed during the 20th century by various units at Penn State. Maple earned music degrees at Augusta University (Georgia) and Florida State University, and the Master of Library Science degree at Columbia University in New York.  She has fielded many inquiries about the Psychological Cinema Register and dug deep into university archives to get the fullest portrait possible for this post.

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

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