At times, medical film genres overlap with those of fiction filmmaking. There are medical films that can be classified as dramas and some that can be classified as comedies.

Photograph of a woman in uniform on a horse in a rural setting.
Mary Breckinridge, 1937
Photo by Marvin Breckinridge. Published in Wide Neighborhoods: A Story of the Frontier Nursing Service, by Mary Breckinridge. Lexington KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1981. Original edition 1952.

Occasionally, medical films have imitated popular fictional genres. The Forgotten Frontier, a silent film some 70 minutes long, contains elements of a typical Western, including horses, guns, and saviors, though the topic is nursing in Appalachia. Usually, though, medical films have their own genres, and whereas Hollywood films are overwhelmingly fictional and feature-length, medical movies tend to be aligned with documentary modes and shorter runtimes.

Indeed, many medical films belong to the tradition of documentary filmmaking. A shared formal characteristic is the use of voice-over narration, which in documentary studies is often referred to as “voice of God” narration. It is almost always a male voice of authority that guides the viewer through the film and relies on the rhetoric of science and reason to persuade.

A poster of a candle burning at both ends, a woman works at a typwriter and dances.
NTA public information poster, 1931
National Library of Medicine #101454766

This kind of guidance also can be visual; medical films abound in images that contain arrows, lines, and labels that guide and inform the viewer. See, for example, Carcinoma of the Esophagus.

Other subgenres or formal strategies that recur in medical filmmaking are the “film within a film” structure, as in the cancer film Enemy X, and reenactments based on real events.

Finally, medical films often make use of distinctive representational techniques, particularly special forms of temporal manipulation—slow motion, time lapse, magnification. In Dr. Fred D. Miller and the Gateway to Health (a film not yet in NLM Digital Collections), the development of a dental cavity is captured using time-lapse photography.

Educational & Instructional

The broadest genre of medical filmmaking is the educational film, which tends toward the efficient delivery of information. These films tell the viewer: “Here’s what you need to know,” i.e. stagnant water breeds mosquitoes, it’s important to know the location of the air raid shelter in your town, you can recover from tuberculosis (as in Two Lives). Similarly, medical educational films inform viewers about “How it’s done.” “It” could be anything from brushing your teeth to identifying signs of cancer or venereal disease.

An animated TB germ wearing a hat speaks into a radio broadcasting microphone.
Tee-Bee, broadcasting live from Lungland in Ulmer’s Goodbye Mr. Germ, 1940
Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

The makers of these films often took over genre designations from the educational institutions for which the films were made. So, for example, films about biology or chemistry. Within the subject areas, films could have an additional classification that related to their intended audiences—films for elementary, junior high, high school, or university use.


A sub-genre of the educational film is the instructional film, whose purpose is to impart a particular skill to professionals, such as administering anesthesia, delivering a baby using forceps, or delivering dental care to the homebound, as in Dental Care for the Chronically Ill and Aged.

Clinical & Surgical

The most specialized form of the educational film is made for clinicians and surgeons. These films typically show clinical symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of various medical conditions, or they may demonstrate surgical procedures in some detail, with narration and close-up shots, for example in Smoking and Lung Cancer.

Research & Documentation

Four mice cluster on a shelf near a water bottle, with several more mice in nooks beneath them. Some have little fur, others look thin and dirty.
Mice in Universe 25, Image #1633, no date.
National Library of Medicine, John B. Calhoun papers, 1909-1996. MS C 586. Series VII: Negatives, Photographs, and Slides, 1960-1992, box 142, folder 21.

Scientific and medical research can be documented on film, as in National Institute of Mental Health scientist John B. Calhoun’s studies on the impact of overcrowding in mice colonies. Dr. Telford Work, an epidemiologist, filmed his travels across Sudan in the 1950s, documenting an outbreak of yellow fever. Other examples in the collection are Dr. Stanley Milgram’s famous Obedience experiment and the Arnold Gesell child development research discussed in the Doctors and Scientists section.


Animation as a technique in educational and documentary-type films can be traced back to the early 1920s, when the Fleischer Brothers produced The Einstein Theory of Relativity, as well as Evolution (also known as Darwin’s Theory of Evolution). Both were released in 1923. Forms of animation from their earliest days to the present include stop-action, cel, motion graphics, and 3D computer-generated graphics. Films in the NLM collection feature mostly traditional 2D cel animation.

In a screenshot Rodney and his doctor look at a chart showing lungs and respiratory system.
Rodney, 1950
National Library of Medicine #8800592A
Courtesy American Lung Association

Animation typically has been more expensive than live-action, and sometimes the two were combined as a cost-savings measure. While the technique’s appeal has never been limited to children, it was generally considered more accessible and could be employed to inject a lighter tone into a production or make a distasteful subject less so. For example, an anopheles mosquito infected with malaria is referred to as Anna Awful or Annie, and is presented in animated form in Criminal at Large and Personal Health in the Jungle.

Medical animation as a teaching tool was also common, as in Jacob Sarnoff’s Human Body series—see Blood Vessels and their Functions. There are several more in the Sarnoff series in the NLM Catalog.