A poster graphic of a city skyline poluting the air.

Peril in the Air: Pollution Activism on Film

Sarah Eilers and Angela Saward, will speak at 2 PM ET on September 9, 2021 This program will be live-streamed globally, and archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Sarah Eilers is an archivist and Manager of the Historical Audiovisuals Program at the National Library of Medicine. Angela Saward is a Research Development Specialist (Moving Image & Sound) at the Wellcome Collection. Her work on the British public health film It Takes Your Breath Away, which documents the history and environmental impact of air pollution, is featured on Medicine on Screen: Films and Essays from NLM. Circulating Now interviewed them about their work.

Circulating Now: Sarah, it’s great to have you back again to talk about the NLM Historical Audiovisual Collection. Angela, welcome, would you tell us a little about yourself and your work?

Formal Portrait of a white woman in causal buisness clothes.Angela Saward: I’ve been working with Wellcome’s audiovisual collections since 2005 when I joined the organization, having come from a company which managed and licensed content for media productions. It was quite a shift moving from the commercial sector to Wellcome Trust, a private charity with its own endowment. One of the things I started to focus on right from the beginning was getting a ‘sense’ of the collection which wasn’t obvious from the shelves of seemingly random material! I then began to conceptualize the collection as one that was ‘hidden’ because many of the titles we hold were made for professional audiences such as doctors, surgeons and midwives. This led to greater clarity in explaining what we have in the collection and its provenance. My day job is a little different as I work across media and the collections, from the earliest material (a 4000 year old Egyptian papyrus) right until up to present day per/zines. I work with our internal stakeholders and find ways of interpolating our collections into projects developed by Wellcome Collection (particularly exhibitions for the public), but also international projects run by our cultural program and colleagues in policy.

An informal portrait of a white woman in a library.Sarah Eilers: I’ve been working at NLM in some capacity since 2005, and with the film and video collection since around 2014. Despite all-remote work, we’ve been able to make good progress on digitizing a large set of VHS tapes on the topic of AIDS as well as standing up a new venture for NLM, digitizing film. While nothing is typical about the last year and half, my workdays at the moment are filled with the minutiae of managing digitization from afar, reference requests, learning our new cataloging system, and thinking about the next essay for Medicine on Screen!

CN: Your talk “Peril in the Air: Pollution Activism on Film” explores the intersection of filmmaking, government, and medicine working together to drive environmental awareness and policy. What prompted this effort?

Fifty Years Ago logo and image of man getting blood drawnSE: I began exploring the subject of pollution in the audiovisual collections in 2020 when the NLM Exhibition Program was developing the exhibition Fifty Years Ago: The Darkening Day. The 2020 project was a retrospective on a 1970 exhibit called “The Darkening Day,” curated and staged at NLM. That original exhibit focused on the ruin being caused by air and water pollution, and on the public and private sector efforts to curb the damage. This was right around the time that President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. Pressure and concern about the environment had been building for years, and the federal government was active in educating legislators and citizens about the perils of pollution, trying to encourage a response at all levels. Film was one way to communicate that message.

AS: Sarah and I had a discussion at a conference we attended together in 2019 about the Orphan Film Festival 2020, which was to take place in Amsterdam. The conference focus on Water, Climate, Migration resonated with both of us and subsequently we were both invited to present on the same panel. Afterwards, I was approached to write up my presentation as an essay for Medicine on Screen and had the opportunity to further research the subject within the archives—I’ve then become even more interested in the topic, especially looking at the origins of pollution activism historically. In looking at the Wellcome collections holistically, I discovered the impact of a treatise published in 1661 by John Evelyn which is called ‘Fumifugium’; Evelyn became an unexpected ‘poster boy’ for environmental campaigners in the twentieth century! I found four occasions when his treatise was republished as evidence for historical activism. In fact, this was not his intention! His pithy language was much admired by environmental campaigners and he is credited with the removal of some of the ‘noxious’ trades, such as tanneries to the outskirts of the city making parts of London at the time more pleasant to live in especially for the aristocratic class he belonged to.

Fast forward a few hundred years in the United Kingdom and the Industrial Revolution had cast a long shadow over the environment because there had been rapid urbanization and a lack of industrial zoning, leading to both social and economic inequality (‘working class’ communities surrounded by factories; ‘upper class’ people living in the greener suburbs surrounded by countryside). Campaigners in the twentieth century focused on ‘smoke abatement’ because London together with other urban conurbations like Manchester were frequently cloaked with smog. Smog comprises of smoke and fog and came about as a result of ‘temperature inversion events’, especially in Winter: temperature drops and the smoke created by industry and domestic coal fires can’t dissipate, thereby remaining over the cities until the weather changed and choking the lungs of its citizens. Artists were keen to capture these unusual atmospheric conditions in their work, these “pea-soupers,” and the skyline of London and city skylines in general were frequently represented in this dramatic way.

The dark side of smog was its clear relationship to damaging health. One such as event was the Great Smog of London in December 1952 (estimates are that between 10,000–12,000 people lost their lives). This ultimately led directly to the Clean Air Act in Great Britain in 1956. Smog also caused fatalities in Europe (Meuse Valley, Belgium, 1930) and the United States (Los Angeles, 1943; Donora, 1948; New York, 1966). It is still a global concern. These events were widely discussed by the scientific community and Washington, D.C., USA, was the nexus of some of this work. The medical professions became instrumental in enacting and accelerating the work which needed to be done to emphasis the health impacts of environmental pollution. The collections held at the NLM and Wellcome represent some of this effort.

CN: Why did advocates choose the moving image format to reach their audience?

The cover of a pamphlet called Guilty Chimneys illustrated with two photographs of industrial and residential chimney pollution.
Guilty Chimneys, a booklet circa 1950s from Materials published by the Environmental Protection UK, (founded as the Coal Smoke Abatement Society in 1898)
Courtesy Wellcome Collection

AS: Speaking from the perspective of the United Kingdom, actually film was a more unusual medium to choose. Generally, smoke abatement activism centered on ‘propaganda’ in the form of leaflets and pamphlets (one entitled ‘Guilty Chimneys’ by the Clean Air Society—which started as the Coal Smoke Abatement Society in 1898, later becoming Environmental Protection UK—is particularly arresting) and then health ‘exhibitions’ in which people were invited to come and look at displays. The latter were staged by health organizations but were often sponsored by industry. It became apparent that old forms of energy, especially in the household were wasteful (coal fires were one example), so the exhibitions became showrooms for modern household goods like cookers and boilers. The exhibitions were also a means to communicate new zoning regulations. The two films I look at in my part of the talk are student films and so they sit outside what was typical of the time.

SE: The use of film to educate soldiers, officers, medical personnel, and others during World War II had a lot to do with it on the American side of things. All branches of the military made films, many of them classified, to teach GIs how to protect themselves from tropical diseases and venereal infections, to provide a better understanding of combat fatigue and psychological pressures, to properly clear and treat vegetation and standing water to combat mosquitos, and so on. After the war, educational and instructional film were deployed widely, in classrooms, community centers, and even broadcast television. It was thought that film could engage audiences more fully than other media, especially if paired with a focused discussion on the topic.

CN: How do films from the United States and the United Kingdom compare?

Title screen of "It Takes your Breath Away" air pollution a human problem.
Still from the main intertitle for It Takes Your Breath Away (1964, dir. Ken Ransom), script and medical advice by Dr. Mary Catterall
National Library of Medicine #101771068

AS: The student films I have chosen—one from the UK and one from the US demonstrate some of the differences. From the UK, with its history of industrialization and the long-lasting effects of pollution, there is a reliance on looking at the physical world—damage to buildings is one key aspect as at the time the film, It takes your breath away, in 1964, the economic cost of cleaning and repairing buildings was an issue which surfaced a lot in the media. The film was made in Leeds (the UK’s fifth most populous city) but the earlier scenes are shot in London, around St Paul’s Cathedral, an iconic London landmark. The second film, Horsepower and Hydrocarbons, was made a bit later, around 1967, and looks at Los Angeles and the impact of photochemical smog caused by car exhaust fumes. Unsurprisingly, cars and roads feature throughout. Both feature clothing and laundry dirtied by ambient pollution.

Halftone photograph from a book showing an industrial area with many smokestacks polluting the air.
Photograph of Leeds. Overlooking Kirktsall Road circa 1896 in The Character and Extent of Air Pollution in Leeds : (A lecture delivered before the Leeds Philosophical Society, on March 3rd, 1896, by Julius B. Cohen
Courtesy Wellcome Collection

SE: I think the US films tend to have a sea-to-shining-sea focus to them. Grand rivers and forests and seemingly unlimited land—in jeopardy due to human impact and despoliation.

CN: What do you think are some of the most effective scenes in the films you’ll be talking about?

AS: There are common themes in the films but the stand-out scenes are ones in which the lived experience of people whose health has been directly impacted by environmental pollution are very powerful. Film successfully, and poignantly, communicates the physical and physiological effects of lung disease caused by air pollution, the wheezing and malaise which comes from ill health, and its subsequent impact on wellbeing.

SE: I agree with Angela, and the films NLM holds don’t show quite as much of this—we see a flash of an asthmatic child or an elderly person in a hospital bed. Still, chemical muck pouring into a river and time-lapse sequences of massive environmental destruction also move the viewer. People are hurt and their places are hurt.

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This presentation is part of our NLM History Talks, which promote 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 talks are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.

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