Read The Essay | Go to NLM Digital Collections | Watch on YouTube | Read Transcript

DATE: 1950

LENGTH: 33 min

CATEGORY: Educational & Instructional, Animation, Sound, Black & White

DIRECTOR: Morten Parker

PRODUCER/PUBLISHER: The National Film Board of Canada, Medical Film Institute of the Association of American Medical Colleges

Warning: The film contains explicit images of disease and intrusive medical treatment. Viewer discretion advised.


In the essay that accompanies this website, David Cantor explores the film Challenge: Science Against Cancer, the English-language version of Alerte: Science Contre Cancer. Both films—part of a family of five movies—were jointly commissioned in 1949 by the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the Canadian Department of National Health and Welfare (DNHW). They were conceived as recruitment tools to encourage young scientists to choose cancer research as a career at a time when poor recruitment seemed likely to stifle the expansion of the rapidly growing field. Cantor’s essay, excerpted from his forthcoming book, is the story of these largely forgotten films, mid-twentieth century cancer research, and how information officers at the NCI and DNHW sought to shape the impact of Challenge/Alerte by embedding them in a broader educational and propaganda program….Read The Essay

Supplementary Materials

Film Stills from Alerte: Science Contre Cancer

Other Films Featured in the Essay

Challenge: Science Against Cancer or How to Make a Movie in the Mid-Twentieth Century”

The five films discussed in the essay include two full-length versions of Challenge, one in English and one in French. These run about 33 minutes each and were initially developed for science student audiences at both college and high school level.

A still of the title screen for Alerte: Science Contre Cancer a ete lu par Claude Dauphin.Alerte: Science Contre Cancer is the French-language version of Challenge. It was jointly produced by the US and Canadian governments, and funded by the Canadian government to reach its large French-speaking population.

Three other titles were intended to reach the general public; they are shorter, modified versions of the full film. One of these shorter versions is available through NLM while the other two below can be viewed on the website of the National Film Board of Canada.

A still from a black and white animated film shows a group of cells dividing.

Cancer, 1951

A 10-minute French-language version of The Outlaw Within (see below). Like The Outlaw, it was aimed at a general audience, exploring how cancers form, the treatment of the disease, how scientists research it, and the questions they seek to answer.  Its animation also seeks to evoke the wonders of the cell and body.

Available from the National Library of Medicine

Still from a black and white film showing two people working with test tubes in a lab.

The Fight: Science Against Cancer, 1951

An English-language, 20-minute version of Challenge/Alerte aimed at theatrical audiences, compressing and modifying the story to include the cure of Mr. Davis, the symbolic patient, a conclusion curiously not included in longer versions. It also offers a glimpse of human cell development, and the clinical and research efforts employed to understand and defeat cancer.

Available from the National Film Board of Canada

Title Screen in black and white.

The Outlaw Within, 1951

A 10-minute English-language version of Cancer (see above). Like Cancer, it was aimed at a general audience, exploring the treatment of cancer, how scientists research the disease, the wonders of the cell and body, how cancers form, and the questions that scientists seek to answer.

Available from the National Film Board of Canada

About the Director

Film director, writer, and producer Morten Parker has to his credit some fifty documentary and narrative films, almost all of which he both wrote and directed. He was former senior Producer-Director at the National Film Board of Canada, long regarded as one of the most respected and influential documentary-producing agencies in the world. Leaving the Film Board, he formed his own production company, writing and directing films for numerous clients such as the U.S. Information Agency, the National Endowment for the Arts, the United Auto Workers, the United Steelworkers, Rutgers University, Wayne State University among other organizations. He served as “United Nations Expert in Film Production” (UNESCO), spending three years as Film Advisor to Israel. He was appointed Advisor on Communications to the Prime Minister of Jamaica. In reference to his political work, everything he produced in that field has been requested by the Museum of Television and Radio, New York City, now renamed the Paley Center For Media, to be placed in its permanent collection. For the Bicentennial celebration in the United States, Mr. Parker was commissioned by The White House to write and direct a documentary film on the subject of “The American Worker.”

In the Collections of the National Library of Medicine

NLM Books and Journals Collection

Cover of a pamphlet
The Challenge of Cancer, 1950
National Library of Medicine #12911460R

Journal of Cancer Education: the official journal of the American Association for Cancer Education

Meeting the Challenge of Cancer: A Supplement to The Challenge of Cancer, 1955, by the Cancer Reports Section of the National Cancer Institute (Download PDF)

The Challenge of Cancer, a Research Story That Involves the Secret of Life Itself, 1950, by Lester Grant. Bethesda, MD, National Cancer Institute An introduction to the state of cancer research in 1950 (Download PDF)

Teaching Guide to Challenge of Cancer, 1950 (Download PDF)

NLM Historical Audiovisuals Collection

A group of film strips including an intertitle and images of a couple embracing and holding a baby.
The Reward of Courage, 1921
National Library of Medicine #101570969

The Reward of Courage, 1921 (Medicine on Screen)

This silent film was the first cancer educational film commissioned by the American Society for the Control of Cancer (now the American Cancer Society).  It urges viewers to avoid quack treatments and to seek the help of recognized physicians at the first sign of what might be cancer.  The film embeds these messages in a melodrama that warns against a nefarious “quack,” invites audiences to sympathize with a vulnerable woman endangered and a young couple thwarted in love, and tells the story of a hard-headed businessman converted to the idea that an industrial clinic could improve worker health and productivity, reduce company costs, and detect cancers.

Choose to Live, 1940

Choose to Live is a conversion story in which Mary Brown is persuaded to seek early diagnosis and treatment from a recognized physician. It explores the anxieties that Mary feels about the possibility that she might have breast cancer; how such anxieties prompt her to delay seeking help; and how they conflict with her sense of responsibility toward her husband and children. Her eventual decision to seek assistance is portrayed as providing her with great comfort. Even before she knows the diagnosis of her condition, she finds that her decision to see her physician has lifted an immense emotional burden: “It’s been such a relief to tell someone what I was afraid of,” she tells her family physician.

A still from an animated film showing a factory setting with abstract figures surrounding tubs of liquid.
The Traitor Within, ca. 1946
National Library of Medicine #8800550A

The Traitor Within (animated), 1946

Until the 1940s most cancer educationals were targeted at women. The Traitor Within was one of the first to try to persuade men to seek early detection and treatment. The enemy in this cartoon is a factory worker gone bad, a transformed cell (akin to a Jean Miro or Alexander Calder figure) that kills its coworker cells and disrupts the production line. Such a portrayal harkened back to wartime scares about fifth columnists; touched on post-war concerns about the “threat” posed by labor unions in an age of full employment; and suggested emergent Cold War anxieties about communist disruption of American industry.

Man Alive!, 1952 (animated, Medicine on Screen)

Like The Traitor Within, Man Alive! was among the first cancer educational films to target men. Where the focus of The Traitor Within is industrial disruption, in Man Alive! it is disruptions to life in middle class suburbia. It tells the story of Ed Parmalee who fears he may have cancer and avoids going to the doctor, just as he fears going to a reputable mechanic when his car’s engine makes a strange noise. In the case of the car, the result is disastrous: Clyde, a crooked car mechanic, destroys the engine. Ed narrowly avoids a similar disaster with his body when he is dissuaded from going to a quack (Clyde’s identical twin) and seeks medical attention from a regular physician. As the narrator explains to him, his body is like a car engine—a metaphor never deployed in cancer education films aimed at women at this time—in that it gives warning signs of impending trouble.

A still from a black and white animation showing the internal anatomy of the digestive system.
Carcinoma of the Esophagus, 1953
National Library of Medicine #8701004A

Carcinoma of the Esophagus, 1953 (animated, fluoroscopic)

Using cinefluorography and animation, this medical training film shows the location of the esophagus and surrounding organs, various irregularities of the esophageal wall created by carcinomas, and the appearance of the area after radiation treatment.

HeLa Cell Strain: Cervical Carcinoma, 1956

Describes and demonstrates, through time-lapse photography at various speeds, the characteristics of cultured cells taken originally from patient Henrietta Lacks, who had cervical carcinoma and was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s. Released before the current controversies around the use of cells from an African American patient without her knowledge or consent, the focus of this film is on the value of such cells as experimental material in the study of cancer and the field of general cytology.

A still from a black and white film showing a woman and a gilr walking toward a large glass fronted building.
The Search for Cancer Viruses, 1966
National Library of Medicine #8600200A

The Search for Cancer Viruses, 1966

This film was produced at a time of growing research into the possibility of a viral cause for some cancers including leukemia, and when growing numbers of children treated with new chemotherapeutic interventions survived leukemia, previously a disease that almost always killed. It explores the possibility that one or more viruses may contribute to the development of cancerous cells, profiles early research in that area, and follows the story of a young girl being treated for leukemia.

Radiation Therapy in the Management of Cancer, 1970

Demonstrates the use of radiation therapy to treat cancer, including two illustrative case studies.

The Care of the Patient with Non-Palpable Cancer of the Breast, 1977

Presents recommended standard of care of the time for patients with a breast lesion that cannot be felt (palpated), sometimes also called by health teams a “minimal” cancer.

NLM Prints & Photographs Collection

Explore images related to medical education in NLM Digital Collections

Explore images related to neoplasms (cancer) in NLM Digital Collections

Related Resources from the National Library of Medicine

Full text articles provided by PubMed Central

Telling Stories, Saving Lives: Creating Narrative Health Messages, 2015 in Health Communication

Thirty Years of the Journal of Cancer Education: a Review, 2019 in the Journal of Cancer Education

MedlinePlus Consumer Health Information

MedlinePlus has thousands of vetted sources and links providing information about cancer, as does the US National Cancer Institute.

External Resources

Related Films

The Fight and The Outlaw Within, at the National Film Board of Canada

Title Screen in black and white.
The Outlaw Within
The National Film Board of Canada

Challenge was a co-production of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and the Medical Film Institute of the American Association of Medical Colleges. An agency of the Canadian government founded in 1939, the NFB produces and distributes documentary films, animation, web documentaries, and alternative dramas. It maintains a website where viewers can access many of its productions, both current and historical, including The Fight and The Outlaw Within, the English-language version of Cancer, available from the NLM. Both The Fight and The Outlaw Within are modified versions of Challenge.

Still from a black and white film showing two people working with test tubes in a lab.
The Fight
The National Film Board of Canada

These shorter versions of the film were targeted at the general public, while Challenge focused on an audience of high school and university science students. The Fight, a 20-minute version, was aimed at a theatrical audience; The Outlaw Within and Cancer,10-minute versions in English and French respectively, were targeted at Canadian film circuits.

Articles and Websites

The Fight: Science Against Cancer | Curator’s Perspective” in the National Film Board of Canada’s blog NFC Blog written for 2022 World Cancer Day, February 2, 2022, by National Film Board of Canada curator Albert Ohayon

Finding Historical Records at the National Institutes of Health” in Social History of Medicine, Volume 28, Issue 3, August 2015, by David J. Cantor

Inside Magoo (1960): Cancer and Comedic Commentary on 1950s America” in Christian Bonah and Anja Laukötter (eds.), Body, Capital, and Screens. Visual Media and the Healthy Self in the 20th Century, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020, pp. 181-203, by David Cantor.

More Medicine on Screen

Posted by:Circulating Now

Share your thoughts...