Federal, state, and local government organizations used moving images as an effective training and public health awareness and education tool.
The US Army, Navy, and Air Force produced hundreds of health and medical films. The NLM evolved from the Army Medical Library and has been a natural repository of military-produced titles, numbering close to 600 in the collection. The 1940s is often considered the golden age of the dramatic public health film, and the armed forces were early adopters of the genre, producing titles to inform soldiers and citizenry about threats to the health of American troops (malaria, dysentery, and venereal disease, to name a few). As the Cold War intensified, the military produced dozens of films about public preparation and response to nuclear attack.
Many military films were made for restricted audiences, not the general public. These films were declassified before transfer to repositories such as NLM. Restricted films often dealt with psychiatric illnesses, as the military did not want it widely known how debilitating the mental and emotional strain of combat could be.
In lighter films directed at soldiers or sailors, animation was a common technique, and films would often combine live action with animated sequences. These films, though more casual in tone, were often restricted as well.
Public Health Service/National Medical Audiovisual Center
The NLM holds about 1,600 film titles produced or distributed by the National Medical Audiovisual Center (NMAC). The Center began as a small branch in the Office of Malaria Control in War Areas in the 1940s. This office was established to suppress the disease around military bases and war industry installations, and it evolved into an important agency with a much broader mission, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
In A History of the National Library of Medicine, Wyndham Miles writes:
The Office of Malaria Control had to train the men it hired, all unfamiliar with the methods of suppressing the disease. It acquired a cameraman-director to make instructional films showing the techniques of larviciding, ditchdigging, dynamiting, and other control measures. This means of teaching proved so useful that the organization hired additional motion picture makers.
The small branch morphed over time into a larger unit that produced 16mm films such as Hand-Ditching for Malaria Control, filmstrips, videotapes, and other materials as teaching and instructional aids for the entire Public Health Service. It also acquired audiovisuals from other producers and loaned them out.
The NMAC became part of NLM in 1967, but it did not physically relocate from Atlanta to Bethesda until the 1980s. Most of the films transferred at that time are available in NLM’s cataloged collection. Forty-five NMAC films are featured in Digital Collections.
State and Local Health Authorities
In New York state alone, the Department of Health, the State Psychiatric Institute, the State School for the Deaf, and the Preparedness Commission produced medical films, and the Department of Health, like the federal NMAC, distributed many more. The NLM houses more than thirty titles in the collection. Check out Public Health in New York State in our Digital Collections.
The South Carolina State Board of Health produced Emmy Immunity, an animated feature promoting vaccination that was designed (along with a radio campaign) to reach those who were not literate.
“Audiences like health programs which include films. Movies translate difficult, technical data into stimulating, meaningful information. But no matter how accurate and stimulating films are, their effectiveness depends on how they are used. This depends on you, the film borrower”
State Psychiatric Hospitals
The collection includes more than 100 titles created or distributed by the Western Psychiatric Institute at the University of Pittsburgh, and many titles from other care facilities as well.
National Film Board of Canada
The NLM holds many titles issued abroad, including about 100 produced and/or funded by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). The NFB is Canada’s public film producer and distributor. Founded in 1939, it has created more than 13,000 productions, with social-issue and public-health documentaries well represented. One NFB title in NLM Digital Collections is The Feeling of Rejection.