Circulating Now welcomes Bert Hansen, PhD, to share his discoveries relating to a film about Louis Pasteur used in American classrooms in the 1940s which he generously donated to the National Library of Medicine in 2017. Dr. Hansen is Professor Emeritus of History at Baruch College of the City University of New York. In recent years he has published articles enlarging the received biography of Pasteur by showing the importance of artists and the art world in his personal and professional life.
Last year marked Louis Pasteur’s 200th birthday with celebrations in many countries. In the United States, Pasteur has held a prime place in popular notions of science starting with his discoveries about wine in the 1870s, and the collections of the National Library of Medicine (NLM) are rich in a variety of Pasteur materials, including an unusual movie, Louis Pasteur, the Benefactor, which brilliantly evokes Pasteur’s rich career in just about 15 minutes.
Pictorial Films released this film in the United States in 1942. Little is known about it, but it seems to have been intended for schools, and perhaps for continuing education in the military. The 1940s and 1950s were a golden age for classroom movies as projectors became more available and easier for teachers and students to operate. There were perhaps hundreds of prints of this film in circulation at the time, but the NLM’s copy is the only one known to have survived. The others faded into disuse or were damaged when a projector’s sprockets didn’t line up closely enough with the perforations. Such films were easily discarded since they were generally not part of a school library, but only a utilitarian audio-visual collection. Then, not too much later, this medium was superseded first by videotapes and then by digital formats. The wholesale destruction of teaching films has reduced the ability of historians to understand what young people of that era were seeing in schools.
Fortunately for scholars and the public, the NLM has digitized this rare film in its entirety, making it viewable for free by anyone in NLM Digital Collections, or the NLM YouTube channel.
At first glance, what viewers see in this short black-and-white film is a series of fast-moving dramatized scenes of Pasteur, other scientists, laboratory work, and the story of how Joseph Meister a poor boy bitten by a rabid dog was saved from death—the very first human being to whom Pasteur’s rabies shots were given. To American children at the time of this movie, rabies and its treatment were universally familiar in the form of parental warnings never to pet a strange dog because, if bitten, you would have to get a series of painful injections. Whatever those parents might or might not have actually said—as an historian of rabies, I have been told by someone in the audience, every time I have lectured on Pasteur over about forty years, a remarkably uniform story of the worrisome warning, including the invariable image of a very long needle going all the way into the stomach, even though I know it was more likely to be a short needle into a fold of skin on the belly.
The film story moves quickly and smoothly to a suitably dramatic end with scenes of a huge celebration at the Sorbonne in honor of Pasteur’s 70th birthday. And the cinematography closely replicated the gathering as recorded in contemporary magazines such as the June 1923 issue of Chanteclair.
I suspect that the film worked remarkably well in providing viewers, especially young ones, a simplified but lasting image of Pasteur and his work in only a very few minutes, especially in a classroom where there might be discussion of the scenes and ideas right afterwards. Two annotations given in a 1943 catalog reveal divided opinions. While one reviewer judged the film as “too condensed”—and it’s hard not to agree—overall, I share the view expressed by School Management.
“Portrays vividly the life of the famous French scientist including his struggle against the prejudices of the French Academy of Medicine; it shows the famous experiment with rabies including the first injection given to a boy bitten by a mad dog; and includes a resume of his scientific accomplishments, his final triumphs, and the eventual world wide recognition of his benefactions to mankind.”
—Educational Film Catalog, 1943 Edition. A Selected, Classified List of 2800 Films for Use in Classrooms, Libraries, Clubs, Army and Navy Training Camps, etc. The H. W. Wilson Company, 1943
Watching the film with a critical eye, some aspects of the style and composition are notable. The entire story is carried by an animated voice-over from a single narrator, a common choice for educational films, as it is inexpensive and familiar to students. The acting style is somewhat stiff and old-fashioned, and everything is all in black-and-white, instead of color, though color was newly on the scene. Yet, both aspects may have been intended to enhance the historical message that these events took place more than a half century earlier.
But there is another explanation for these characteristics: the footage was all taken from a 1935 French film, titled simply, Pasteur. This 71-minute film was written, directed, and performed by the renowned actor, dramatist, and director Sacha Guitry. And that version is connected further back in time to his play, performed and published in 1919 in Paris, in which Pasteur was played by Sacha’s father, Lucien Guitry, one of the most eminent actors of the French theatre world. In 1923, the play was staged in New York with Henry Miller in the lead. The play earned a rave review in the New York Times, but ran for only a few weeks.
Strikingly, a very popular monthly magazine, Hygeia, published by the American Medical Association, carried a long, illustrated article about the play in 1923, written by no less a figure than Dr. Morris Fishbein, best-selling author on medicine and health, as well as an editor of JAMA.
Guitry’s 1935 film was shown first in France and then in the United States, by coincidence just a little before Warner Brothers released the Oscar-winning Story of Louis Pasteur in the United States with Paul Muni—an action-filled biopic, which played in many European countries, where it may have eclipsed both the talky, more intellectual, and slow-moving play as well as the film that retained the formal, declamatory style and the mis-en-scène of a filmed stage performance.
Revisiting this little film reminds us that less-formal documents of education and mass culture are not being consistently preserved for future historians. In the case of this little treasure, the copy was one of several teaching films that I purchased at flea markets or in online auctions, venues that I used for many years to secure and preserve medical history ephemera that might otherwise be lost. When I donated the movie to the NLM some years ago, I didn’t recognize the French source of the footage—and there are no credits announcing this in the Pictorial Films version. Then, a few years later I viewed Guitry’s film when it appeared on a commercial DVD. Even then, I didn’t spontaneously see the visual connection between the two movies. But thanks to easy access of the NLM’s digital copy on the internet for research at home, I recently viewed it and recognized its origin in the Guitry footage and traced out the lineage of these three unique dramatic embodiments: play, theatrical movie, and classroom film. Each has its own aesthetic and primary audience, but all shared an ennobling appreciation for the life-saving medical advances made decades earlier by Louis Pasteur.
The National Library of Medicine hosted an exhibit for the 175th anniversary of his birth in late 1972–early 1973: Louis Pasteur, Scientist and Benefactor of Humanity.
Bert Hansen, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of History at Baruch College of the City University of New York. He has been teaching the history of science and medicine since 1974. His 2009 book, Picturing Medical Progress from Pasteur to Polio: A History of Mass Media Images and Popular Attitudes in America, was honored by the American Library Association and the Society for Popular Culture. Hansen lectures widely on popular imagery of science and medicine and the use of graphic art in public health campaigns. He has donated historical art and artifacts to many libraries, but the largest gift of a few thousand items forms the Bert Hansen Collection of Medicine and Public Health in Popular Graphic Art at the Yale Medical Library. Much of this collection is now digitized and is freely available via Yale Library’s digital collections website. Many of his publications have now been made open access and links are easily found at his website www.BertHansen.com.