A scanned frame of film, with sprocket holes, shows a soldier in a helmet looking at an American flag.

The Public Health Film Goes to War

By Michael Sappol ~

As the 1930s gave way to the 1940s, cinema—public health films included—was having a moment. With the onset of World War II, that moment exploded. Film was thought to be an especially influential medium. The US military had much to say and show audiences of soldiers and the public—and now, the funding to do it. Often in league with well-regarded filmmakers, the government sought to inform, inspire, and educate military men and women as well as the masses at home. This essay examines a group of 13 films representing a sampling of that oeuvre.

Public health and war have long been close companions, and maybe strange bedfellows. Starting with the Crimean War, and then the first terrible round of “modern wars”—the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War and World War I—military officials and civilian leaders called on health professionals and volunteers to help mobilize and protect military forces and civilian populations. Health professionals and volunteers, in turn, viewed war as an opportunity to test and implement their theories, as an opportunity to use newly discovered knowledge and newly invented technologies—and eagerly jumped on war bandwagons to advance their professional, scientific, political and ideological goals. Not surprisingly then, public health and military establishments have come to share a common vocabulary (campaigns, mobilizations, officers, enemies, containments, crusades, surveillance, evacuation, battles, wars, victories, tactics, strategies, logistics), a common obsession with scientific and technological innovation, and a common organizational model: the disciplined, deployable, hierarchical service; command and control.

A scanned frame of film showing parts of the previous and next frames, depicting a military parade.
DDT: Weapon Against Disease, 1945
National Library of Medicine #9502511

The synergistic relationship between health professionals and the military especially flourished during the most massive conflict of all: World War II. In the era of total war, the mobilization of science and technology on behalf of the war effort famously bore fruit in the development of antibiotics, radar, and the atomic bomb. But the war also invigorated and shaped a variety of technological approaches to public health—the development of chemical pesticides to kill mosquitoes and other insect disease vectors, the expansion of electronic communication networks for public health surveillance, and the production of public health films aimed at mass audiences of military personnel and civilians.

Scrolling text reads: The advice "in time of peace prepare for war" applies to the fight against disease as well as to that against a military enemy. Disease has destroyed more people than all the wars in history. Public heath workers not only fight epidemics and disease when they occur, but they must be ever alert...
The Work of the Public Health Service, ca. 1936
National Library of Medicine #8601396A

The use of film to educate and mobilize the public for health purposes was not new. Interest in the educational possibilities of motion pictures began practically with the invention of the technology. But the medium of film inspired larger visions. In 1910 Thomas Edison prophesied that the motion picture would “wipe out narrow-minded prejudices which are founded on ignorance,…create a feeling of sympathy and a desire to help the down-trodden people of the earth, and…give new ideals to be followed.”  Edison clearly had an inventor’s (and investor’s) interest in promoting motion pictures, but his enthusiasm for his invention was widely shared. Film was almost universally regarded as an exemplary technology of modernity, a medium destined to transform society. In the early decades of the 20th century, military and civilian officials, educators, leaders of philanthropic organizations, and commercial companies like Pathé Frères and Eastman Kodak, all began making and exploring the uses of film to instruct the public and shape public opinion. Public health advocates and professionals—who had ambitious agendas of their own—were especially charmed, deeply impressed by cinema’s sway over mass audiences. The first public health film, on the “life drama of the fly,” was made in Great Britain in 1910 as part of a national anti-fly campaign. Other productions followed, in Britain, Germany, the United States, France, and, later, Italy and the Soviet Union, on the health hazards of alcoholism, water and food contamination, and other topics.

Illustration of two men standing in a patch of grass, one of whom is taking notes.
Criminal At Large, 1943
National Library of Medicine #8800163A

After this initial wave of filmmaking, some public health professionals began to temper their enthusiasm, perhaps influenced by a larger post-war disillusionment that was setting in. Evart G. Routzahn and Mary Swain Routzahn, pioneering public health media specialists for the progressive Russell Sage Foundation, were skeptical about the effectiveness of the films that had been made. “The propaganda value of the motion picture,” they wrote in 1918, “is both very considerable and…overrated. It is unreasonable to expect results merely because people like motion pictures.” The Routzahns, and some other public health advocates, didn’t dismiss film entirely, but argued that the public health films of the period were poorly made, scientifically inaccurate, and lacking in credibility….

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

The original Public Health Film Goes to War site was created in 2011 by Drs Michael Sappol, Paul Theerman, and David Cantor. Response to the project helped stimulate the launch of Medical Movies on the Web, a site dedicated to expanding awareness of and access to rare and important titles in the NLM audiovisual collection. This evolution continues with Medicine on Screen, which supports researchers with context, access to related NLM resources, and publication of original essays based in the NLM collections. You can find the original site in the NLM Web Archive.

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