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By | Events and Visits, From the Collections

…and some benefit will be gained by reading on… trust me. Yesterday I attended a programme of public health information films The Cinema of Disease held at the Open City Docs Fest, which is taking place in and around UCL 21st-24th June.

As a panel member, I had the opportunity to watch the films ahead of time and in fact it was no hardship to watch them again at the screening. They provided a fascinating journey with illustrations of the evolving production aesthetics of this genre. Science was in evidence and we all felt that we had learnt something we never knew (often with the benefit of imaging techniques using, for example, microscopy to make the hidden seen).

At the end, a lively discussion ensued facilitated by Claire Thomson, lecturer in Scandinavian Film & Head of Department; well do public information films have a role today? As of the 31st March this year, the coalition government closed down the Central Office of Information which became the successor to the war-time Ministry of Information in the UK. The UK-government appears to have no appetite to get involved in high profile health awareness. The devolution of healthcare means that we are more likely to seek health-care advice from the Internet. Fellow panel member Deenan Pillay (UCL Research Department of Infection) explained that clinical research in this area is moribund. In fact it was argued that greater public awareness has come from ‘seeding’ health messages within a less ‘high-brow’ context such as in soap operas – a good example of this was cited, having been scripted into the character of Mark Fowler in EastEnders; originally conceived no doubt to reflect the ‘real’ world but having a positive impact on awareness of this condition none-the-less. Cathryn Wood (Innovation Manager, DMI) added that this latter technique and the use of story, a narrative with an emotional hook, has proved instrumental in addressing maternal behaviour and infant mortality of 20% in some areas of sub-Saharan Africa.

Some health campaigns were remembered quite fondly, but there was a sense of unease around whether they were ever evidence-based; was the health campaign around HIV/AIDs; Aids Monolith, 1987 instrumental in changing behaviour? An example mentioned in the discussion, which did lead to changes in infant mortality; Life is a miracle, 1996 had a celebrity presenter, Anne Diamond, who was well known at the time and who gave added poignancy as she had lost her son to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Public health information films are part of the conversation relating to health and well-being and part of the public understanding of science and biomedicine; it is an important part of the conversation. We have been digitising our moving image and sound collection to make this kind of material more freely available; films can be found in the Wellcome Film resource and on our YouTube channel – there are over 2000 subscribers and a growing number of lively comments to the films, particularly those relating to public health. Another port of call is the National Archives which has a selection of public information films online. There are many other online resources and I have taken the hard work out of sourcing these films by providing links so you can replicate the experience of watching the programme yourself.

You Have To Say It (On Doit Le Dire) O’Gallop / 1918 / France / 5’

Unhooking The Hookworm 1920 / USA /10’

[Mind Your Health (Beregi Zdorov’e) Aleksandr Medvedkin 1929 / USSR / 9’ this was not screened]

Preventing The Spread Of Disease 1940 / USA /10′

Tony Bacillus & Co. Colm O’Laoghaire / 1946 / Ireland / 6’

Surprise Attack Crown Film Unit / 1951 / UK / 10’

Unseen Enemies Michael Clarke / 1960 / UK / 27’
Unfortunately, no online copies are in evidence; a 16mm print copy is the Moving Image & Sound collection and can be viewed onsite. There may be a number of versions as the catalogue and programme state 1959/60; from memory, the date on the screening copy credits was 1974.

Author: Angela Saward

Chris Hilton

Chris Hilton

Dr Christopher Hilton was until August 2017 a Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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