Stills from the films of Telford Work.

The Films of Virologist Telford Work

Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Dwight Swanson, a film and video archivist who has worked on collections in Alaska, Maine, Kentucky, and Washington, DC. He has lectured and written extensively on home movies and amateur film history and co-organized the 2010 Medical Film Symposium as well as other conferences on amateur and nontheatrical films. Today, he shares some insights on a group of films in the National Library of Medicine’s Telford H. Work Papers 1938–1990 now highlighted on Medicine On Screen.

A black and white photograph of Telford Work in a striped short sleeved shirt stands behind a camera on a tripod in a wooded area.
Telford H. Work (19211995)
Telford H. Work Papers
National Library of Medicine #101082665

As the world has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the work of virologists has never been more crucial. Virology is having a cultural moment, so it is opportune to stop and look back at the career of Telford H. Work, one of America’s premier virologists. Work’s collection of 83 films documenting his life’s work and travels is preserved in the National Library of Medicine collections, along with Work’s manuscript collection, which covers his education, career, hobbies, and achievements. Made between 1942 and 1988, the films were primarily shot on 16mm film, with video copies made later by the National Library of Medicine (NLM). Although some of Work’s California wildlife films were donated to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Work’s widow Martine Jozan, MD, Ph.D. (also a virologist) donated most of his films to the NLM in a series of gifts to the institution between 1999 and 2006. His film Reconnaissance for Yellow Fever in the Nuba Mountains, Southern Sudan was previously the subject of a “Medicine on Screen” essay by Paul Theerman.

He trudged everywhere loaded with a tripod and 16mm Bolex cameras, documenting epidemiological events as they unfolded “as a journalist does in a notebook.” —Martine Jozan

Work, the Filmmaker

Telford Work was not a professional filmmaker, but heused his films to show both his travel and his scientific fieldwork. His style sometimes resembles that of a talented home movie maker, but one who was filming his medical and virological work in addition to scenery and private events, while at other times his filmmaking shows the skill an experienced documentarian. While there are some brief scenic interludes scattered throughout, the films are primarily (in Martine Jozan’s words) “either a scientific documentation of medical outbreaks, or a scientific outlook on the biology of animals, or places.”

A sign on a tree that reads Kaysanoor State Forest in two languages.
Kyasanur Forest Disease, 1956
National Library of Medicine #101491206

Browsing the collection’s catalog, the films’ titles (which were supplied by Work) are frequently simply the names of the locations where they were filmed (such as Lapland, Nepal, Antarctica), making them appear to be travel films, while others (Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever, Rhesus Insulin Shock, and Tick-Borne Encephalitis: Eastern Europe, for example) sound primarily medical, often deceptively so, since Work’s films are nearly all a mixture of nature, clinical documentation, and fieldwork. Despite existing in a gray area between genres, “they were all documentaries,” writes Martine Jozan, “always done with rigor and foresight.”

The films were not intended to be private documents and were shown at universities, scientific meetings, and public screenings. He also presented films to his students at home, where Martine would have to feed dozens of students, “dynamic and hungry and always fascinated by his stories.” “I would barbecue two turkeys,” she wrote, “and they will have corn on the cob, potatoes, salad, and ice cream, plus beer and wine. After that, they had to digest through the movie.”

“My dad would tell the stories as the 16mm film clacked through the projector,” recalls his daughter Amrit Work Kendrick…

“The other great thing about using film to teach was that he could make a disease cycle come alive. It was not just in a laboratory that the discoveries happened. He thought through the whole cycle: arthropod vector to mammal or bird to arthropod to human. He thought about the cultural practices which had people come into contact with the arthropod. What were they doing in the forest? What were they doing in the lake? How did that climate, e.g. arid tropics, provide an ideal condition for the interactions? And he developed trust with people to take samples of their blood when they often did not see the relationship between that and the science that could put their blood to use for finding the virus. These ecologies of disease were part of the stories he told, and I am sure that for some students it gave them a real “AHA!” moment.”

A man in a plaid cap sets up a movie camera on a tripod in a meadow by a shelter of branches and canvas.
Monsoon Mosaic, 1954
National Library of Medicine #101478296

In the mid-1950s, Work presented two of his films in the National Audubon Society’s “Audubon Screen Tours” program series. Pharaohs and Fellahs (1946) and Monsoon Mosaic (1954) were both edited from the wildlife scenes he had filmed in Egypt and India and were screened with his live narration. “Through his lectures, Dr. Work shares his world-wide knowledge and absorbing color motion pictures of natural science in many lands,” read the tour’s promotional materials.

He was a technical perfectionist with his camera and his filmmaking. “I think the best present he received from me,” recalled Martine, “was a fisheye lens which I got directly from the Bolex factory in Switzerland.” She remembers a time when she was frustrated with him for making her repeat a scene twenty-three times so he could get it just right. “He would make you repeat the scene indefinitely. He wanted to have a special cloud, a special red car coming by; a special moment of sun.” Daughter Amrit recalls that “when we travelled through a multitude of airports, I usually carried a tripod and sometimes the movie camera. All of us in the family have had many laughs about being his beasts of burden, carrying the camera equipment through many countries.”

A man at a table out doors holds out a bird.
St. Louis Encephalitis Epidemic, 1964
National Library of Medicine #101683147

Trying to categorize Work as strictly a documentary or amateur filmmaker may ultimately not be very helpful, since it is the way that the clinical, the cultural, the personal, and the aesthetic elements are deeply intertwined that makes the films so interesting and complex. “Amateur” here is not a pejorative term, but rather a reflection of the fact that Work was being paid for his scientific research, not his filmmaking. Scientists and doctors (particularly surgeons) have documented their work before, but rarely in such complicated ways, and while it is simple and commonplace now to shoot long video recordings, to do so on 16mm film (and then to painstakingly edit the films) is a more unusual undertaking….

To read the full essay and to see the film go to Medicine on Screen: Films and Essays from NLM, a curated portal including original research on selected films from NLM historical audiovisual collection.

Dwight Swanson lives in Virginia, where he is currently working on developing the Museum of Sleep. Previously, he worked as an archivist for film and video collections in Alaska, Maine, Kentucky, and Washington, DC. He has lectured and written extensively on home movies and amateur film history and co-organized the 2010 Medical Film Symposium as well as other conferences on amateur and nontheatrical films. He was a co-founder of Home Movie Day and the Center for Home Movies, where he spearheaded and co-produced a number of curatorial home movie projects, including the DVD “Living Room Cinema,” the feature-length 35mm compilation film “Amateur Night, “Home Movie Day and Night: The 24-Hour Home Movie Marathon” and the screening series “Other Histories: Amateur Films on the National Film Registry” at the Museum of Modern Art.

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