A photograph of eight boxes of films and two viewers.

A Super 8 View of Women’s Health

By Sarah Eilers ~

Late last year, the audiovisual collection at the National Library of Medicine (NLM) received a donation in a format new to the library—a Fisher-Price toy film viewer and several cartridges of 8 mm looped film on topics such as breast self-examination, how to insert a diaphragm, and what to expect when undergoing a pelvic exam. The educational material was developed by Ortho Pharmaceutical Corporation through their Omni Education Division. Omni Education also produced or sponsored scores of films and videos on women’s health topics before it merged with McNeil Pharmaceutical in 1993 (Ortho-McNeil was later subsumed under Janssen Pharmaceuticals). The Library holds about two dozen of these moving image titles.

A two page advertisement for the movie viewer showing a child using it and an array of cartridges featuring cartoons and educational topics.
Advertisement by Fisher-Price Toys, 1973
“No Batteries Required: Remembering the Fisher Price Movie Viewer (1973),” Flashback, 2015

The viewers and cartridges came to NLM via Louisa Trott, an associate professor and librarian at University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and an experienced film archivist. A few years ago, Ms. Trott made a routine visit to the gynecologist. At the Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health, Corinne Rovetti, a nurse-practitioner and co-director of the clinic, demonstrated for Ms. Trott one of its more effective teaching tools—the Fisher-Price toy film viewer paired not with children’s movies or Sesame Street, for which the viewers were originally designed, but with the Ortho cartridges on women’s health topics.

A title frame from one of the health films that reads "Breast Self-Exam Omni Education."As Ms. Trott, who gave a presentation about the viewers at the 2022 annual meeting of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA), put it, “I was excited and intrigued to see 8mm technology being used to provide still-relevant information to patients in 2019.” The viewer and cartridges were regularly used and by all accounts, patients found the information simple to absorb and retain. In a recent phone interview, Ms. Rovetti described her discovery and use of the viewers. “I started at the clinic in the late 1980s, and found the viewers stored in a closet,” she said. “I pulled them out and was able to get more cartridges through an Ortho Pharmaceutical rep” who visited the clinic regularly. The staff began offering the materials to patients, who were pleased with the accessible, interactive nature of the viewer/cartridge combo (and intrigued by the retro technology). While the information was somewhat dated, Ms. Rovetti said the breast self-exam and diaphragm presentations remained relevant and useful. After leaving patients in an exam room to handle the viewers, Ms. Rovetti could hear the click-click-click of the device as women made their way through the material. The viewers remained in used for the next 30-plus years.

A photograph of eight boxes of films and two viewers.
Super 8 Viewers and eight films acquired by NLM, 2023
Photograph by Shelly O’Barr

In her presentation at AMIA, Ms. Trott shared her assessment of the appeal of the viewers and cartridges:

What particularly struck me about this collection was the power that this simple technology and the tangibility of film has to engage people and convey information. It is its very tactility and the fact that patients must interact with it to control the movement of the film/images that makes it such an effective teaching tool. The multi-sensory nature of the technology including seeing, hearing, feeling, and even the smell of the plastic all contribute to its effectiveness.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dobbs vs. Jackson case in 2022, the Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health chose to close its doors. Ms. Trott contacted Ms. Rovetti to let her know that the viewers and cartridges held historical and cultural value and might be well-suited for placement in a health and medicine-focused archive. She agreed, and Ms. Trott brought the artifacts home. She launched further research into Ortho Pharmaceutical’s role in developing health education material and began sketching out her planned presentation on the viewers’ decades of service at the Knoxville clinic. She also sought a suitable placement for the items. A longtime colleague in the medical moving image field, Angela Saward of the Wellcome Collection in London, put Ms. Trott in touch with me. I was able to attend Ms. Trott’s well-attended session at AMIA, and we carefully made the transfer there immediately after. The materials are now housed in the NLM onsite film vault.

For questions about this historical collection and/or others held by the NLM, including how to consult them, please contact the History of Medicine Division Reference staff via NLM Customer Support or call (301) 402-8878.

An informal portrait of a white woman in a library.Sarah Eilers is the Manager of Historical Audiovisuals in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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