Detail from a catalog of films listing "Rx" A Documentary Film.

Adolf Nichtenhauser: Documenting the History of Movies and Medicine

Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger David Cantor to discuss a newly digitized collection of materials related to medicine and film compiled by Adolf Nichtenhauser (1903–1953). The collection contains correspondence, memoranda, reviews, catalogs, and a variety of printed matter pertaining to technical, historical, educational, and miscellaneous aspects of the medical motion picture.

The cover of a pamphlet: A National Directory of Safety Films, 1946-47 edition.
Adolf Nichtenhauser Medical Film Materials 1933–1955,
National Library of Medicine #2934110R, MS C 277

Medicine and the motion picture have had a long engagement. They first came together in the late nineteenth century, but their romance truly blossomed during the twentieth.  Enthusiasts saw film as a revolutionary new medium that could transform how the body, health, and disease were viewed, and reform the education of mass audiences.  So, during this period, they made thousands of medical and health films, sometimes using the medium as a research tool, sometimes as a way of recording medical or scientific practice, and sometimes as a means of instruction, marketing, or promotion.  We are only now beginning to understand the complexities of the flowering of this relationship between film and medicine.

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) has released a treasure trove of digitized papers on this subject collected by the film historian and enthusiast Adolf Nichtenhauser (1903–1953).  Nichtenhauser’s name may not be well-known outside of a few scholars of medical and health films, yet the rich collection of papers he amassed has become a foundation for much recent historical research on the topic. Before this digital release, anyone wishing to work with his papers had to travel to Bethesda, Maryland where the NLM is based. Now, this vast collection of primary sources on the history of medical and health films is freely available for the first time to anyone, anywhere in the world.

Nichtenhauser’s enthusiasm for film went back to his roots in Central Europe. He was born in Vienna, Austria, studied psychology, art history, and literature at the Universities of Berlin, Bonn, and Heidelberg, and medicine at the universities of Berlin and Vienna. He received his medical degree in 1931 from the University of Vienna, after which he practiced medicine in various Viennese hospitals, and worked as a medical translator.  While in Vienna he also took courses in motion picture technology, fascinated by the educational and aesthetic possibilities of film, and began a career as a critic, promoter, and maker of motion pictures alongside his work as a physician.

An annotated typscript page headed The Years After the First World War
Adolf Nichtenhauser Medical Film Materials 1933–1955
National Library of Medicine #2934110R, MS C 277

Right-wing authoritarianism in Austria changed everything for Nichtenhauser. He was banned from the General Hospital in Vienna in 1933, accused of “anti-government” propaganda abroad, and in 1934 reprimanded by the Federal Ministry for Social Administration. So, in 1937, he emigrated to France and then in 1939 to the USA.  He rapidly gained a reputation in the US as an expert in medical and health films, making some movies and helping to evaluate others.  He also sought to integrate film into medical and health education, promote the creation of film libraries, and publish lists of recommended films.  He worked with several federal and private agencies, including the National Tuberculosis Association, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Medical Film Institute of the Association of American Medical Colleges, and the Armed Forces Medical Library (later the NLM) for which he prepared a plan to collect and preserve medical motion pictures.

Throughout this difficult period, he amassed a huge corpus of materials on medical and health films which would become a foundation for his unpublished book manuscript “A History of Motion Pictures in Medicine.”  While “A History…” itself is not yet digitized, the corpus of materials Nichtenhauser collected to support the observations, assessments, and arguments in the manuscript is part of the NLM’s digital release.  There are, for example, records that he used to support his argument about how motion pictures became a research and demonstration tool within the field of medicine shortly after the invention of film technology, and his contention that from the 1910s it was transformed into an educational device targeted at the wider public. The collection also provides evidence for other observations and arguments in the book manuscript, including his claims about the importance of the two world wars as key moments in the history of the medical and health films, and how the development of such films varied from country to country (there are files on the history of motion pictures in several nations, mainly in Europe and North America).

A page from a catalog of films from Squibb Visual Aids, NY.
Adolf Nichtenhauser Medical Film Materials 1933–1955
National Library of Medicine #2934110R, MS C 277

The documentation in this collection is extraordinary.  It illuminates the evidence behind Nichtenhauser’s views on the critical roles of numerous international, professional, commercial, and government organizations.  There are many folders here on organizations that made and produced films, but Nichtenhauser also gathered information on the screening, sponsorship, collection, and distribution of motion pictures. The corpus also includes material on the evolving technologies of the camera, projector, and the film medium. In the unpublished book, he presented these details with an explanation of how such technologies influenced what was filmed, how it was shown, and how audiences might have experienced motion pictures.

Anyone interested in the use of film in medicine will find riches in this collection. There are folders on cancer, cardiovascular disease, rabies, nutrition, surgery, pharmacology, orthopedics, physical medicine and physiotherapy, nursing, dentistry, public health, mental health, and television among other subjects.  And there are countless film reviews, many unpublished, often evaluations of their effectiveness or otherwise: “an excellent example of a bad instructional film,” (p.2) is the scathing assessment of one title.

An excerpt from a typed document with the heading From One Cell
Adolf Nichtenhauser Medical Film Materials 1933–1955
National Library of Medicine #2934110R, MS C 277

Finally, Nichtenhauser was also interested in what today might be called visual culture. He argued in his manuscript that the problem of motion-picture filmmaking was not primarily “one of equipment, photographic technique and finances but one of thinking in a visual language which has its own particular grammar, syntax and logic.” Some of the papers he used to formulate his thoughts on this subject are here in the NLM’s collection.

The NLM has thus released a cornucopia of material that will be the foundation of much future historical research on medicine and film.  While this release does not include Nichtenhauser’s unpublished book manuscript, the NLM plans to scan that material in the near future and make it similarly available. The Nichtenhauser collections, along with selected films and further commentary, will be highlighted on the NLM’s Medicine on Screen site, likely in 2023.

For more on Nichtenhauser’s history of motion pictures in medicine see the “Introduction” to Health Education Films in the Twentieth Century, 2018, by Christian Bonah, David Cantor, and Anja Laukötter (eds.)

David Cantor is an investigador (researcher) at the Instituto de Desarrollo Económico y Social (IDES), Buenos Aires Argentina and an adjunct professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland, College Park. He was for several years affiliated with the National Library of Medicine and also worked in the Office of History, National Institutes of Health. His extensive published scholarship focuses on the history of medicine in the twentieth century, most recently the histories of cancer, stress and medical film.

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