A still of a black and white film shows a woman in a white coat working in a lab.

Challenge: Science Against Cancer, 1950

Circulating Now welcomes David Cantor, PhD, to discuss his research on the history of public education film making and cancer in a new essay “Challenge: Science Against Cancer or How to Make a Movie in the Mid-Twentieth Century” now available on Medicine on Screen: Films and Essays from NLM.

In 1949 the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the Canadian Department of National Health and Welfare (DNHW) commissioned a cancer educational film, eventually called Challenge: Science Against Cancer. It was to be one of the first of a new form of film.  Earlier cancer educationals had sought to recruit patients and volunteers into programs of early detection and treatment against this group of diseases.  In the view of most anti-cancer organizations, the problem was that many people delayed seeking help until after the best opportunities for successful treatment had passed. The urgent task, these organizations suggested, was to encourage people to go to a recognized physician as early in the natural life of the disease as possible, before it had progressed too far for therapy. Film was a key part of their public education efforts concerning this issue.  Challenge, by contrast, targeted a new audience and sought to address a newly urgent task.  In the views of both the NCI and the DNHW, the small numbers of new scientist recruits to cancer research were insufficient to sustain the field, funding for which had expanded in both countries as never before following World War II, and was expected to continue to grow in the foreseeable future. The fear was that a shortfall in recruits would undermine continued growth and the hopes invested in the field. Thus, the new urgent task was to induce young scientists to think of cancer research and biomedicine as careers, and Challenge was to be a key part of the response. The open access book that accompanies this essay—Cancer, Research, and Educational Film at Midcentury—is the story of this film:  why it was commissioned, how it was made, and how it was promoted and packaged.

The Sponsors

The NCI office responsible for the film—called the Cancer Reports Section—had been established in 1948 to address growing public and congressional interest in cancer, to fulfil a mandate to develop public education about cancer, and to promote the interests of the NCI, including its research.  It was led by its first director, Dallas Johnson, a former educator, consumer activist, and journalist, and she faced unique problems in establishing the section at the heart of NCI propaganda and education.  She had the support of the Director of the NCI and the agency’s cancer control side.  However, she had more difficult relations with the research side, which was then expanding rapidly and overshadowing the control side of the organization, a situation that complicated her efforts to center the Cancer Reports Section as the organizational unit through which all NCI public education and propaganda should pass.

A still of a black and white film shows a woman in a white coat working in a lab.
Still from Challenge: Science Against Cancer, 1950
National Library of Medicine #8700851A

Then she was given a new task—to help recruit young scientists into cancer research.  The leadership of the NCI was concerned that too few science students saw cancer research as a career.  Most were tempted elsewhere, into industry where the pay was better, or atomic physics, a high-status field after the development of the atomic bomb.  Cancer research, by contrast, was dogged by low pay, a reputation as a dead-end field in which scientists lacked opportunities to make significant advances, and a research grants system that was not fit for purpose.

Johnson’s new task offered her a chance to make the Reports Section central to the NCI’s public outreach regarding research, and she began to develop a public education recruitment program.  She did not immediately think of film as a tool in this campaign, and indeed seemed to be at a loss as to how best to proceed more generally. Then, in 1948 she met with a young novelist, Bernard V. Dryer, who showed her a Canadian script for a recruitment film.  Almost immediately she saw the film as a solution to her problems, jumped on board with the Canadians, and began figuring out how to raise money from the NCI for its production.   The film was to be one of the largest financial expenditures for Johnson’s section, and it took up much of her time over the next one and a half years. A key part of her strategy for establishing the Cancer Reports Section, Challenge was to be central to the early history of what would become Cancer Communications at the NCI.

The DNHW office responsible for the film was it’s Information Services Division (ISD). The ISD had a longer history than the NCI’s Cancer Reports Section. It traced it roots to 1919, though it had been reorganized recently.  It did not focus specifically on cancer, and its head, Lt. Col.  C. W. Gilchrist, did not have the problem of establishing himself within the Department that Johnson’s start-up had in the NCI, though he did not always have an easy relationship with his Minister, Paul Martin.  Like Johnson, Gilchrist was not responsible for initiating the idea of a cancer film.  He had been approached by the Canadian Cancer Society asking for funding for a film or films that would educate the public about the disease and promote the expansion of cancer research in Canada.  Enthused by the idea, in 1948 Gilchrist commissioned the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), Canada’s state-funded film producer and distributor, to make the film.

A woman laying with a device being held on her back
Still from Alerte: Science Contre Cancer, 1950
National Library of Medicine #9918316187006676

Until 1948, Canadian cancer organizations had not produced many educational films.  Most were imported into Canada from the United States.  In the 1940s, however, Canadian Cancer organizations increasingly felt that these American films were not suitable for Canadian audiences and began planning their own productions.  The problem was that they did not have sufficient funds to make a film, which is why they turned to the DNHW.  After initially being rebuffed, they found a receptive audience in Gilchrist, and began planning a film to coordinate with a fund-raising drive, which would help to launch a new research body, the National Cancer Institute of Canada (NCIC), Canada’s equivalent of the US National Cancer Institute.

Part of the agenda of the Canadian cancer organizations in promoting this film was to keep Canadian scientists in the country.  Many were tempted to leave byf the better pay and resources available in the US, and their emigration was a threat to the expansion of cancer research in Canada, and the success of the NCIC. In addition, there were many of the same problems that dogged American recruitment efforts: poor pay, a problematic grants system, and a sense that cancer research was a dead-end field for an ambitious young scientist.  Thus, when the Americans came in as collaborators on the film that became Challenge, it raised some tricky problems for the Canadians.  It was the first time the Americans had turned to Canada for a cancer educational film, but the fear was that a successful cancer recruitment film could increase the temptation for Canadian scientists to seek richer research pastures in the US.  Thus, the paradox was that a Canadian gain in the field of cancer education could also be a loss for Canadian science….

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.

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 research focuses on the history of medicine in the twentieth century, most recently the histories of cancer, stress and medical film. His most recent publication, Cancer, Research, and Educational Film at Midcentury: The Making of the Movie Challenge: Science Against Cancer is available open access.

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