By John Parascandola, PhD (University of Maryland)

Know For SureInfection network chart.

DATE: 1941
LENGTH: 22 min
PRODUCER/PUBLISHER: Research Council of the
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,
US Public Health Service
CATEGORY: Educational & Instructional, Sound,
Black & White

To The PeopleTitle Screen

DATE: 1944
LENGTH: 22 min
US Public Health Service
CATEGORY: Educational & Instructional, Sound,
Black & White

The United States Public Health Service released several venereal-disease education films in the 1930s and 1940s as part of a broader campaign against venereal disease.  Two of the best of these, produced in cooperation with the Hollywood filmmaking industry, were Know for Sure (1941) and To the People of the United States (1944).

The Public Health Service (PHS) had been operating a venereal-disease program since World War I, when concern over the number of Army recruits infected with syphilis or gonorrhea led Congress to enact a law that created a Venereal Disease Division in the PHS.  With the end of the war, Congress lost interest in the venereal-disease problem, and funding for this purpose declined dramatically.

A man in a suit writes at a desk.
Surgeon General Thomas Parran, 1943
National Library of Medicine #101443908

When Thomas Parran was appointed Surgeon General of the PHS in 1936, however, he wasted no time in launching a new national campaign against venereal disease. Parran had served as chief of the PHS Venereal Disease Division earlier in his career and had never lost interest in the subject.  In the early 1930s, he was detailed by the PHS to New York to serve as State Health Commissioner, and he made venereal disease a priority of his administration.  In one well-known incident, Parran made headlines in 1934 when he canceled a radio address at the last minute because he was told that he could not mention syphilis or gonorrhea by name on the air.[1]

Parran’s articles in magazines and his 1937 best-selling book, Shadow on the Land, were instrumental in breaking down the taboo in the popular press against the frank discussion of venereal disease.  He sought to focus the battle against venereal disease on scientific and medical grounds, rather than placing an emphasis on moral or ethical views concerning sex.[2]  Parran did not completely ignore moral issues related to sex, but in the words of historian Allan Brandt,  “Though he sought to avoid offending the social hygienists [who emphasized behavioral reform], Parran downplayed the moral argument.”[3]

The shape of a man pouring a dose of medicine into a spoon overlaid with news clippings and advertisements for
No Home Remedy or Quack Doctor Ever Cured Syphilis or Gonorrhea, mid-1900s
National Library of Medicine #101450677

Parran also played a key role in the passage of the National Venereal Disease Control Act in 1938, which provided Federal funding through the PHS to the states for venereal-disease control programs, as well as supporting research into the treatment and prevention of venereal disease. As a part of its efforts to combat venereal disease, the PHS launched an educational campaign that involved issuing posters, brochures, and other publications on the subject, an effort that was stepped up when the United States entered the war in December of 1941. 

Included among the weapons in the campaign’s arsenal developed by the PHS in this period were motion-picture films.  In 1942, PHS physician James A. Dolce wrote to a colleague:

“We feel very strongly that motion picture films are a most important medium for health education.  Well-written and produced films not only command large audiences, but, as you know, actually instill more information into observers than does any other teaching aid.”[4]

An illustration of a green hand pulling up a calendar page to reveal a b&w photo reproduction showing a large crowd of people.
Syphilis: A Million New Victims Each Year, ca. 1945
National Library of Medicine #101450678

PHS began producing films about venereal disease (VD) even before the United States entered the war.  Just a year after he assumed the office of Surgeon General, Parran arranged for the PHS to collaborate with the American Medical Association (AMA) in the production of Syphilis – A Motion Picture Clinic (1937).  This 80-minute sound film, however, was not aimed at the general public but at clinicians.  It consisted of several segments featuring leading syphilologists lecturing on various aspects of the disease, essentially a group of “talking heads,” with occasional visual presentations or demonstrations.  PHS also released two silent VD films that year, Syphilis of the Central Nervous System – A Preventable Disease (aimed at health professionals) and Syphilis: Its Nature, Prevention and Treatment (aimed at lay audiences).  The annual report of the PHS for fiscal year 1938 indicated that this latter film was in great demand.[5]

These early films were not very sophisticated from a cinematic point of view.  In the case of the film designed for lay audiences, Syphilis: Its Nature, Prevention, and Treatment, a later reference to it by a PHS staff member termed it “amateur” in nature.  He also noted that although it was useful in its time, it had become outdated and outmoded by 1940.  It was silent and has been described as more of a slide lecture than a film.  The fact that this film was “in great demand” in 1938 may be more a reflection of the paucity of good VD education films for lay audiences than of the quality of the product.[6]

Also in 1938, PHS produced a motion picture that made much better use of the film medium, Three Counties Against Syphilis.  The film tells the story of a PHS syphilis control program developed in 1937 in three counties in southeastern Georgia.  The program was aimed at African Americans in a rural environment.  PHS sponsored a mobile trailer clinic that traveled through these three rural counties and provided blood tests and treatment for syphilis.  The film documented the program but presumably could also be used as a VD-education film, spreading the message that syphilis can be diagnosed and cured. It is painfully ironic that at the same time that PHS was promoting this program for African Americans, it also was conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment.

Recognizing that it was not in a position to develop professional-quality films on its own, the PHS contracted with the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to produce Three Counties Against Syphilis.  A PHS staff member explained in 1937 that USDA had “a very complete motion picture unit upon which it spends several hundred thousand dollars a year” and that its staff included people with experience working for commercial film studios.  He believed that PHS could retain more control over the film and get the work done more cheaply by using USDA than by contracting with an industrial film company.[7]

As the conflict in Europe intensified, and the prospect of American involvement became more likely, efforts to prepare for war increased, as did concerns about venereal disease as it might affect the military and essential defense industries.  The PHS intensified its campaign against venereal disease, which included the production of further films.[8]  Among these were Know for Sure (1941) and To the People of the United States (1944).  These films were intended to warn the public about the dangers of venereal disease and of the need to seek diagnosis and treatment.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which had begun producing motion pictures for the War Department on a nonprofit basis, was approached by the federal government in April, 1941 about the prospect of the Academy making a film on venereal disease for the PHS.  The PHS had been interested in encouraging the large, commercial motion-picture studios to produce public-health education films since at least the late 1930s, as it was recognized that films made by Hollywood would be of exceptionally high quality from a production standpoint.  The Research Council of the Academy agreed to produce the film, and Darryl F. Zanuck, the Council’s Chairman, decided to supervise the production.[9]

On August 18, 1941, the Research Council issued a press release announcing that it was making a documentary film on sex hygiene, Know for Sure, for the PHS.  The film was to be directed by Lewis Milestone and made at Twentieth Century Fox Studios. The script was written by John Sutherland from information provided by the PHS.  The motion picture was designed to be shown to defense workers in airplane factories, ammunition plants, and other civil defense organizations.  Not stated in the press release, but evident from other documents, is the fact that the film was meant to be shown only to male workers.  This is the version that has been digitized for Medicine on Screen.  (A version of the film omitting the scenes involving male genitalia and the use of prophylactics was later produced for use with female or mixed audiences.) Because the director, actors, and others contributed their services, PHS was able to obtain a professional-quality film at the relatively modest cost of $15,000.  No cast credits were given in the film, but the Hollywood actors who appeared in it included J. Carrol Naish, Tim Holt, Samuel Hinds, Ward Bond, and African American actress Hattie McDaniel (as a housekeeper in a brothel).[10]

Two men have a physical confrontation over a retail counter.
Know For Sure, 1941
National Library of Medicine #101620467

The film weaves together several stories through the interaction of two physicians.  It opens with a vignette about Tony, a stereotypical Italian immigrant, complete with accent and an emotional temperament.  Tony is excited about the birth of his first child, but is devastated when the baby boy is born dead, the victim of congenital syphilis.  When the excitable Tony learns that he gave syphilis to his wife, who passed it on to the unborn child, he threatens to kill himself with a knife.  The doctor calms him down and convinces him that he and his wife can be cured of the disease and have healthy children in the future.

Other stories in the film deal with men who contracted syphilis through prostitutes or “pick-ups” and with a syphilitic man who is robbed of his money and his health by a quack doctor.  Although the film warns of the dangers of sex with prostitutes and “pick-ups,” emphasizing that a woman might “look clean” and still have the disease, it is not overly moralistic in its tone.  While urging men to avoid casual sex, the film devotes substantial attention to methods for minimizing the risks of contracting VD in such situations.  Men are encouraged to wear a “rubber,” and the film provides explicit instruction on how to use a condom.  Detailed instructions are also given, with a visual demonstration, on how to cleanse the genitals after sex.  The film also emphasizes the importance of seeking medical attention if one notices a sore or some other symptom that might indicate syphilis.  One can only “know for sure” by getting a blood test.  The fact that syphilis is curable with the proper medical treatment is also an important part of the film’s message.

As might be expected, the PHS’s decision to emphasize prophylaxis in Know for Sure came in for criticism from those who preferred an approach to VD education that involved a conservative sexual morality focused on abstinence from sex outside of marriage.  For example, Dr. Walter Clarke, the director of the American Social Hygiene Association, which waged its own campaign against VD and collaborated with PHS on several efforts, complained to Raymond Vonderlehr, head of the PHS Venereal Disease Division, about the depiction of prophylactic methods in the film.  Vonderlehr replied:

…our belief was and still is that a certain number of men are going to find and use opportunities for extramarital sex relations no matter what happens.  As I see it, an important part of our job is to prevent infection.  Teaching men how to protect themselves from venereal disease does not imply that we condone sexual promiscuity no more than teaching soldiers how to protect themselves against poison gas proves that the Army wishes to encourage the use of such gas by the enemy.[11]

This is a remarkable and clever analogy, which brings home the point that VD education is a tool that is designed to protect the soldier, thus serving the same purpose as military training in defensive tactics.

Although the film did point to prostitution as a major source of infection, Clarke apparently thought that more attention should have been given to this subject on moral grounds. Vonderlehr favored the repression of prostitution, but he distinguished between the moral and public-health aspects of the problem in his response to Clarke’s criticism of Know for Sure.

Strictly speaking, our only interest in prostitution lies in its role as the most important carrier of infection.  Morals and self control are important in our purview simply because of their preventive value.  If all men invariably protected themselves, then, from a public health standpoint, prostitution unlimited would not concern us as health officers, even though we might strongly object to it on other grounds.[12]

The executive officer of the Montana State Board of Health also raised a concern about whether the film might “encourage sex immorality and birth control.”  PHS physician E. R. Coffey replied that the PHS believed that the need for enlightenment on methods of preventing VD outweighed other considerations and that he was confident that those who saw the picture would understand that the objective was not to encourage immorality but to emphasize methods that would prevent the spread of VD.[13]

In fact, the PHS considered prophylaxis to be an essential message of Know for Sure. Coffey even referred to it in a letter as “the prophylaxis film.”  Howard Ennes, a health education specialist for PHS, emphasized in 1942 that there was no question in his mind that considerable emphasis must be given to prophylaxis in PHS VD films.[14] In responding to criticism of the film from the VD Subcommittee of the Philadelphia Defense Council, Vonderlehr wrote that the film’s “primary educational message was the use and importance of prophylaxis.”  He objected to the removal of the prophylaxis section of the film, as suggested by the Philadelphia group.   Vonderlehr went on to defend the film by indicating that the PHS had already received a large number of favorable responses to the film.[15]  When asked by an Army Major if Know for Sure would not have been more complete if it had devoted some of its message to continence as a means of preventing VD, George Parkhurst of the PHS Venereal Disease Division replied, “At the time this picture was made, however, it was felt that since numerous other films had laid particular emphasis on continence but had given no dramatic and effective emphasis to prophylaxis, the dangers of quack treatment, and the urgent need for early diagnosis and treatment, our film should devote its full length to these neglected aspects of the subject.”[16]

PHS was well aware that the decision to focus on prophylaxis would make the film controversial.  In order to minimize this criticism, PHS decided to distribute the film through local health agencies (it was assumed that these agencies in each state would buy prints of the film).  Even the 65 prints to be distributed directly by PHS would be “loaned only on the endorsement of local health agencies.”  E.R. Coffey explained in a letter to Vonderlehr, “The purpose of this arrangement is to forestall unnecessary criticism—which is sure to fall on any motion picture treating prophylaxis.  Also, when the film is used in restricted groups under proper supervision, its effect can be supplemented by information from the local authorities and the subject matter better related to local situations.”

Coffey suggested that a prophylaxis pamphlet be given to audiences seeing the film so that they would have something to take away that would give more detailed information than the film could.  He believed that in this way “the lesson of the film can be driven home and the argument for prophylaxis, etc., clinched.”  As we have seen, this arrangement did not forestall all criticism of the film, although it may well have limited such criticism.[17]  The evidence indicates that Know for Sure was well received by other organizations, e.g. the Army, the Navy, the American Public Health Association, and the Venereal Disease Commission of the Michigan State Medical Society.[18]

Pages from a United States Public Health Service pamphlet.
Venereal Disease and National Defense, 1941. One of several pamphlets about VD issued in the early 1940s. 
National Library of Medicine #101568680

PHS soon had another opportunity to cooperate with Hollywood in the production and distribution of a VD education film.  The project appears to have been initiated in the fall of 1942 as the result of a conversation between Lawrence Arnstein, Executive Secretary of the California Social Hygiene Association, and noted producer-director Walter Wanger about the possibility of Wanger’s making a VD film for the American Social Hygiene Association or the PHS.  Wanger’s production company, Walter Wanger Productions, was affiliated with Universal Studios.  Arnstein then discussed the matter with Parran and Vonderlehr at the Hot Springs National Conference on Venereal Disease Control in October.  The PHS leaders “thought this a splendid opportunity to obtain a film suitable for release through theatrical, entertainment, motion picture channels.”[19]  Wanger wrote to the Surgeon General near the end of the year to offer to donate his services “in making a really outstanding film about venereal disease,” as Vonderlehr put it in a letter to a colleague.  Vonderlehr went on to say:

Mr. Wanger’s idea is to make a film that would be shown in commercial theatres throughout the country, and he believes he can obtain the free services of many of Hollywood’s outstanding writers, actors, and technicians. […?] The possibility of reaching an enormous audience through a really outstanding film written, directed and produced by the very best talent in the motion picture field is, in our opinion, an unparalleled educational opportunity.[20]

Wanger indicated that he was interested in the project only if he could have a free hand in making the film, although the PHS noted that it would reserve the right to review the medical content.  According to Vonderlehr, Wanger viewed the film largely as a Hollywood contribution to the war effort and emphasized that it would have to be acceptable for showing in commercial theaters.  Vonderlehr was not sure whether the film would cover the subject of prostitution and “promiscuous girls.”[21]

PHS had long been interested in the production of a VD education film that could be shown in commercial theaters.  This venue would provide access to a much larger and broader audience than was available through limited screenings arranged by health departments, employers, and similar groups.  Such a film, of course, would have to be suitable for mixed gender audiences and could not contain sexually explicit material. As early as 1938, Vonderlehr reminded a physician at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company that motion-picture houses existed for entertainment rather than for education, and that they would be more likely to show educational films that had dramatic value.[22]

Since the PHS did not believe that it could appropriately negotiate a contract to make a film with a particular studio, Wanger, Arnstein, and Leroy Burney, who had been assigned as the PHS technical consultant on the film, approached the California State Health Department to seek their involvement.  The Department agreed to negotiate the contract with Wanger, and the PHS indicated that it would cover the expenses involved so long as they did not exceed $50,000.  It also was agreed, however, that the PHS would have the right, if the film met with its approval, to sponsor the film for national theatrical distribution through the Office of War Information and for use through the various state health departments.  Wanger envisioned that the film would be shown in theaters as a short along with the usual double feature.[23]

Men in uniform gathered around a jeep.
To the People, 1944
National Library of Medicine #8700222A

The script developed by Wanger’s organization was read and approved by the California State Health Department, the PHS, the Office of War Information, and the Army.  Production began in the fall of 1943, and To the People of the United States was completed in January of the following year.  Hollywood star Jean Hersholt donated his services to play the protagonist, an Army doctor.  Other actors who participated in the film included Robert Mitchum and Noah Beery, Jr.  The film begins with introductory statements by Army Surgeon General Norman Kirk and by PHS Surgeon General Parran.  It then moves to a scene involving American bombers taking off from an airfield on a wartime mission.  A disappointed bomber pilot, grounded because he has syphilis, watches the planes leave.

He is concerned that he will never fly again, but an Army doctor (Jean Hersholt) explains that syphilis is treatable and that the pilot can be cured.  Much of the rest of the film is devoted to a comparison of syphilis rates and attitudes towards the disease in the United States versus Scandinavian countries.   The openness in talking about venereal disease in Scandinavia is contrasted with the American practice of not discussing the problem in public.  Americans are encouraged to confront the disease openly.  Except for a final statement from Parran, the film ends with scenes of farmers, factory workers, soldiers, athletes, Boy Scouts, “bright, fresh looking girls, and healthy vigorous boys,” with the music building to a “rousing fade,” while Hersholt’s voice intones:

A man in a doctor's office.
Jean Hersholt in To the People, 1944
National Library of Medicine #8700222A

The children who follow us must inherit health—and freedom—and happiness. The Scourge of Disease must be wiped from the land, and then there will be a new day ahead. A day without insidious, lurking evil sicknesses—a day without a useless hypocritical attitude which refuses to name a germ—yet permits the horrible devastation caused by it.  Syphilis!  Say it … Learn about it!  Have a blood test to make sure you haven’t got it!  And, working together, we’ll stamp it out.[24]

By December, 1943 the film had been completed, and the PHS was basically satisfied with the product, although indicating that some alterations might be needed.  Parran wrote to the California Department of Health about purchasing prints of the film for distribution.  He saw the film as “extremely valuable for use in an intensified national program of public education and information on venereal disease which will begin early in the new year,” sponsored by the PHS with the cooperation of the Office of War Information (OWI) and other agencies.  Parran also spoke of initiating negotiations with OWI “for possible national commercial theater distribution.”[25]

In January, Stanton Griffis, Chief of the Bureau of Motion Pictures of OWI, viewed the film at the request of the PHS and recommended that it be accepted as part of the OWI program and released as soon as possible.  Griffis expressed the view that “the picture has been brilliantly made.”  He did not see anything in the film “that could offend man, woman or child, except a prude still wandering in the haze of a social viewpoint of bygone days.”   Griffis asked Parran to send him an enthusiastic letter of recommendation for the film “to break down exhibitors resistance.”  Parran complied, emphasizing in his letter that the film dealt with one of the Nation’s most serious health problems, and adding:

For this reason I feel that every man, woman, and child in the United States should be given the opportunity of seeing this film.  The nation’s motion picture exhibitors will perform a courageous and patriotic service by cooperating with the United States Government in exhibiting TO THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES.[26]

But in spite of the enthusiasm of the PHS and the OWI, and Griffis’s conviction that there was nothing in the film to offend anyone, To the People of the United States immediately ran into trouble.  In early March, the Legion of Decency, established by the Catholic Church to evaluate whether films were “morally objectionable,” reviewed the film before it was to be released and protested against it to the OWI and the PHS.  While admitting that venereal disease was a threat to the war effort, the Legion did not think that movie theaters were the appropriate venue for dealing with the problem.  Burney and J. R. Heller of the PHS, along with William Snow of the American Social Hygiene Association, met with Monsignor John McClafferty and other members of the Legion to discuss the matter.  The Legion representatives indicated that they opposed theatrical release of the film because it violated the Motion Picture Code’s strictures against sex hygiene and venereal disease as appropriate subjects for motion pictures. It also would “pave the way for a flood of pictures by producers who do not hesitate to avail themselves of every opportunity for lurid and pornographic material for financial gain.” Finally, it failed “to stress the fact that promiscuity is the principal cause for the spread of venereal disease.”  Although admitting that the film was “essentially dignified and restrained in its treatment of the subject presented” (e.g., there were no scenes depicting syphilis lesions, sexual organs, or prophylaxis methods), the Legion asked the PHS not to sponsor it for theatrical release on the grounds noted above.[27]

Parran called an emergency meeting of the PHS Advisory Committee on Public Education for the Prevention of Venereal Diseases, which was made up of clergymen, health professionals, and teachers, for advice on how to handle the situation. The Committee recommended that in view of the opposition from the Legion and other groups, “it would not be wise for the Public Health Service to sponsor national theatrical release of this film.”  It was thought that any other course of action “might endanger the whole program of venereal disease education and might even have harmful effects on other vital and important public health activities throughout the nation.”  The Advisory Committee did suggest, however, that with minor changes the film would be suitable for controlled distribution through state and local health departments, voluntary health agencies, and similar organizations.  In particular, the Committee recommended that “some attention be given to the influence of moral standards on the spread of disease.”  The group was concerned that if no reference was made in the film to moral issues, it might appear to some that the PHS was “condoning sex promiscuity.”[28]

Parran decided that it was best to accept the Committee’s recommendations.  Wanger was naturally disappointed that PHS would not sponsor national theatrical distribution for the film, and asked Parran to reconsider his decision.  The Surgeon General again consulted the Committee, which stood by its original recommendations.  In his reply denying Wanger’s request, Parran noted that it was difficult for him to explain in detail all of the “supremely important factors” involved in the decision of the Committee and his own reasons for abiding by the Committee’s recommendations.  He did, however, offer the following justification:

The Committee states that the problem concerns a great deal more than whether or not a particular film shall be released.  They feel that for the government to sponsor theatrical release now is to incur the danger of arousing controversy which will involve the Public Health Service, the Federal Security Agency, the Office of War Information, the Army, and various religious, teaching and medical groups.  At this particular time, when many important elements of our population are in a state of indecision and anxiety, it is believed any action on our part which would tend to add to the general atmosphere of conflict and controversy would be unwise.[29]

Parran also indicated to Wanger, as an additional justification, that the Committee was beginning “a survey of the entire field of venereal disease education in order to determine the extent to which promiscuity and moral standards should be dealt with in the educational efforts of official health agencies.”  In this connection, Parran did defer to the concerns of the Legion of Decency in the revision of To the People of the United States before it was released for the controlled distribution mentioned above.   The major alteration that was made in the film before distribution was to revise Parran’s brief concluding speech.  In deference to the concerns of the Legion and other critics of the film, Parran’s new closing words emphasized promiscuity as a major cause of VD and gave credit to various groups combating this problem:[30]

Here, we have told only part of the story of venereal disease control.  Untold is the finework our churches, schools and social agencies are doing to prevent the promiscuity which spreads infection. It is important to remember that the only sure way for the individual to avoid infection is to avoid exposure. Learn the facts—with knowledge and intelligent action the people of America can eradicate the venereal diseases.[31]

Concerned about the damage that a controversy over the film might inflict on the PHS venereal-disease campaign and other programs, Parran elected to yield to religious and social pressures on this issue.  He recognized that the film, which he thought was excellent, would be seen by fewer people if it were not shown in commercial theaters, but he accepted the compromise position of limited distribution to appease the Legion of Decency and other critics.  Parran already had shown his willingness to tackle controversial issues by his frank discussions of venereal disease and his vigorous campaign to control it, but he was enough of a politician to recognize when it would be wise to give ground.  In this case, the conservative approach of the Catholic Church towards sex education prevailed over purely scientific and public-health concerns with respect to the distribution of the film.

These two films, produced in cooperation with Hollywood talent, were more sophisticated that earlier PHS ventures into filmmaking.  They are technically and artistically superior to their predecessor VD films.  For example, the use of foreground/background compositions in Know for Sure (i.e., the use of the store window) is stylistically sophisticated, as are the sets and use of camera movement.  The extended sequence of direct address in To the People of the United States is also cinematically effective.  Unlike the earlier PHS VD films, which were documentaries, these motion pictures featured dramatic stories scripted by Hollywood writers and starring professional actors, thus making them appealing to the general public.

As noted, Parran faced resistance from those who wanted to treat VD as primarily a moral issue not only with respect to these films, but in connection with the entire PHS anti-VD campaign. Parran, who was himself a Catholic, believed that moral factors were important in sexual matters and the control of venereal disease. The PHS under Parran cooperated with social and religious groups in the campaign against venereal disease. The Surgeon General believed, however, that PHS had to view the subject primarily from a public-health viewpoint. In a 1944 letter defending the PHS against criticism of its VD education campaign, Parran explained that the PHS campaign was based upon scientific facts. He noted that the educational materials used emphasized the medical and public-health aspects of VD control “because the teaching of sexual morality is the function of the home, the church and the school,” and that health agencies were responsible for dealing with venereal diseases as dangerous contagions. He added that it should be possible, using available scientific methods, to eradicate these diseases in our lifetime, a timetable that “may be well in advance of any major changes in the sex habits of the population as a whole.” Finally, he argued that those who criticized the effort to educate the public about venereal diseases “have a tremendous job of their own in gaining acceptance for the way of life that would prevent them.” As demonstrated by the case of To the People of the United States, however, Parran was not always successful in keeping moral concerns from trumping public-health considerations.[32]

John Parascandola received his PhD in the history of science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  After spending a postdoctoral year at Harvard University, he returned to Madison to join the faculty of the School of Pharmacy and the Department of the History of Science at the University of Wisconsin.  In 1983, he moved to Bethesda to serve as Chief of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.  He held that position until 1992, when he became the Public Health Service Historian.  Since retiring from the federal government in 2004, Dr. Parascandola has been an adjunct faculty member in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park.  He has published several books and numerous articles, including Sex, Sin, and Science: A History of Syphilis in America (Westport, CT and London: Praeger, 2008).


Blank, Theodore. “An Historical Survey of the Development of the Use of Audio-Visual Materials in Venereal Disease Educational Programs, 1900-1949.” D.Ed. dissertation, Boston University, 1970.

Brandt, Allan M. No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States Since 1880, expanded edition. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Lederer, Susan and Parascandola, John. “Screening Syphilis: Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet Meets the Public Health Service,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 53 (1998): 345-370.

Nichtenhauser, Adolf. “A History of Motion Pictures in Medicine,” unpublished manuscript, ca. 1950, MS C 380, History of Medicine, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD.

Parascandola, John. “Syphilis at the Cinema: Medicine and Morals in the VD Film of the U. S. Public Health Service in World War II,” in Medicine’s Moving Pictures: Medicine, Health, and Bodies in American Film and Television, ed. Leslie J. Reagan, Nancy Tomes, and Paula A. Treichler (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2007), pp. 71-92.  This paper gives a more detailed account of the PHS World War II VD films.

Walsh, Frank. Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.


[1] The story of the cancellation of Parran’s radio address is recounted in numerous sources.  See, for example, Allan M. Brandt, No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States Since 1880, expanded edition (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 122.

[2] Ibid., pp. 122-23, 138-142.

[3] Ibid., p. 140.

[4] James Dolce to Philip Broughton, June 27, 1942, 1942 folder, General Classified Records, 1936-1944, Group IX, General Files, 1350 (Motion Pictures), Public Health Service Records, Record Group 90, National Archives, Washington, D.C.  The PHS records are housed in the Archives II facility in College Park, MD.  All materials from RG 90, National Archives (NA), cited in this paper are from this general group unless otherwise noted.

[5] Adolf Nichtenhauser, “A History of Motion Pictures in Medicine,” unpublished manuscript, ca. 1950, MS C 380, History of Medicine, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD, pp. IV-179-185; Theodore Blank, “An Historical Survey of the Development of the Use of Audio-Visual Materials in Venereal Disease Educational Programs, 1900-1949,” D.Ed. dissertation, Boston University, 1970, p. 614; Annual Report of the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service of the United States for the Fiscal Year 1938 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1938), pp.132-133.

[6] Howard Ennes, Jr. to Raymond Vonderlehr, July 17, 1940, “Fight Syphilis” folder, Record Group 442, Acc. # 4NS-442-93-58, Box 2, National Archives Southeast Region, East Point, GA.  All materials from RG 442 cited in this paper are from this collection unless otherwise noted.

[7] Philip Broughton to Paul de Kruif, July 19, 1937, “V.D. Film” folder, RG 90, 1350, NA.

[8] For more information on the PHS venereal disease program, see Brandt, No Magic Bullet and Parascandola, John,  Sex, Sin, and Science: A History of Syphilis in America (Westport, CT and London: Praeger, 2008).

[9] Gordon Mitchell to Arch Mercy, May 12, 1941, “Know for Sure” folder, General Classified Records, 1936-1944, Group X, National Defense, 1940-1946, 1350 (Motion Pictures), Public Health Service Records, Record Group 90, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

[10] Press release, August 18, 1941, attached to letter from Gordon Mitchell to Raymond Vonderlehr, September 22, 1941, ibid.;  D.A. Dance to E.R. Coffey, August 20, 1942, Group IX, 1942 folder, 1350, RG 90, NA; two-page typescript description of the film, “Know for Sure” folder, RG 442, Box 2, NA SE Region.

[11] Raymond Vonderlehr to Walter Clarke, February 28, 1942, “V.D. Film” folder, RG 90, Group IX, 1350, NA.  Vonderlehr expressed the view to Parran that since prostitution interferes with the effectiveness of venereal disease control, it should be repressed.  Raymond Vonderlehr to Thomas Parran, March 17, 1941, 1943 folder, Group IX, 0425 (Venereal Disease), RG 90, NA.

[12] Raymond Vonderlehr to Walter Clarke, February 28, 1942, “V.D.Film” folder, Group IX, 1350, RG 90, NA.

[13] W.F. Cogswell to E.R. Coffey, April 4, 1942 and Coffey to Cogswell, April 10, 1942, “Know for Sure” folder, Group X, 1350, RG 90, NA.

[14] E.R. Coffey to Knox Miller, November 14, 1942, 1942 folder, and Howard Ennes, Jr. to L.C. Stoumen, May 27, 1942, “Know for Sure” folder, Group IX, 1350, RG 90, NA.

[15] Raymond Vonderlehr to John Stokes, March 24, 1942, “Know for Sure” folder, Group X, 1350, RG 90, NA.

[16] George Parkhurst to John Ankeny, February 24, 1944, ibid.

[17] E.R. Coffey to Raymond Vonderlehr, December 23, 1941, 1942 folder, Group IX, 1350, RG 90, NA.

[18] Howard Ennes, Jr. to Raymond Vonderlehr, February 26, 1942, 1942 folder, Group IX, 1350, RG 90, NA; Blank, “Historical Survey,” p. 793.

[19] Otis Anderson to Mary Switzer, April 3, 1944, “V.D. Film” folder, Group IX, 1350, RG 90, NA.  At about this same time, the PHS also collaborated with Hollywood on another film project related to VD.  In 1943, Warner Brothers and the PHS produced an abridged 30-minute version of the feature film Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet that focused on the portion of the story dealing with Paul Ehrlich’s discovery of Salvarsan and its use against syphilis.  The adapted version of the film, entitled Magic Bullets, was added to the PHS inventory of educational films.  See Susan Lederer and John Parascandola, “Screening Syphilis: Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet Meets the Public Health Service,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 53 (1998): 345-370.

[20] Raymond Vonderlehr to Charles Taft, December 31, 1942, 1942 folder, Group IX, 1350, RG 90, NA.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Raymond Vonderlehr to Donald Armstrong, August 1, 1938, 1937-38 folder, Group IX, 1350, RG 90, NA; Frank Walsh, Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996), p. 179.

[23] Anderson to Switzer, April 3, 1944; Raymond Vonderlehr to C. C. Applewhite, March 24, 1943, “Film Scripts re Venereal Disease” folder, RG 442, Box 1, NA SE Region.

[24] “To the People of the United States” script, “To the People of the United States” folder, RG 442, Box 1, NA SE Region.

[25] Thomas Parran to Wilton Halverson, December 6, 1943, 1943 folder, Group IX, 1350, RG 90, NA.

[26] Stanton Griffis to Francis Harmon, January 5, 1944; telegram from Stanton Griffis to Leroy Burney, January 6, 1944; Parran to Griffis, January 7, 1944, “To the People of the United States” folder, RG 442, Box 1, NA SE Region.

[27] Anderson to Switzer, April 3, 1944; Walsh, Sin and Censorship, p. 180.

[28] Thomas Parran to Walter Wanger, March 16, 1944, “To the People of the United States” folder, RG 442, Box 1, NA SE Region.

[29] Thomas Parran to Walter Wanger, March 31, 1944, ibid.

[30] Ibid.  See also Frank Walsh’s discussion of the controversy over the film in Sin and Censorship, pp. 179-182.

[31] “To the People of the United States” script; Thomas Parran to Wilton Halvarson, April 11, 1944, “To the People of the United States” folder, RG 442, Box 1, NA SE Region.

[32] Thomas Parran to George Healy, Jr., September 16, 1944, 1944 folder, Group IX, 0425, RG 90, NA.

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