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Film of the month: Abdominal hysterectomy for pyosalpinx

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05/09/2013

By | From the Collections

Film title page for "Abdominal Hysterectomy for Pyosalpinx

Title page for ‘Abdominal hysterectomy for pyosalpinx’.

This is a fragment of a longer film (the original length was 502 feet which is about 6 minutes) depicting the surgical removal of the uterus (a hysterectomy) in close-up. Pysosalpinx relates to the fallopian tube being blocked by pus. The film is a remnant from a collection of 80 films that were purchased in 1928 for £800 (equivalent to £36.5k in 2012) and which was described as “an Unique Collection of Medical Films”.

The collection was sold at auction by Steven’s Auction Rooms Ltd. The catalogue (which is held in the department) says “that only four have been used, these are the only copies of these subjects in this country “. Potential buyers  could inspect and view the films at Cross Pictures Ltd. In fact the acquisition of the material is remarkably well documented: there are two letters in the department from Steven’s Auction Rooms to different addresses (presumably both were working as buying agents for Sir Henry Wellcome) asking the purchaser to remove the items from the auction house as the goods were taking up a lot of space. The wording is virtually identical; one is to Mr Cummings of East Dulwich and the other to Mr Wilkes of Chiswick, although in the latter’s case there is an additional request “with regard to the Mummy Cases, the authorities will not allow us to retain these at our Rooms, and must be removed immediately”. A signed agreement (with an annotated draft) exists transferring the physical ownership of the films together with the copyright to Joseph C. Smith of Acton.

The original film materials were on 35mm nitrate stock and were insured by the Westminster Fire Office for fire and burglary to the value of £5000. The flammability of nitrate film was well understood and from the late 1940s most new 35mm film was on safety stock. However, pockets of older material does re-emerge occasionally, although according to Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation over 90% of films made before 1929 are lost. Information about the Cross Pictures Collection then resurfaced in August 1969. A laboratory, Kay Laboratories, was asked by Wellcome to create a 16mm reduction copy on safety film from the nitrate material (at the time video was not a viable option as it was in its infancy as a format; a 16mm reduction print was the only cost-effective option). One of the films which was selected for a test transfer was Suprapubic Cystotomy by J. Bentley Squier. The laboratory reported that it was too badly shrunken and “we regret that we cannot accept the responsibility of damaging the master material and do herewith return same”. There are a few handwritten notes which reveal the fate of the material thereafter;  a calculation of the total amount of the collection ‘83,938 feet Cross’, (21 hours of footage – assuming 18 frames per second running speed), “do something about film store”, then a brief aide-memoire “all found in a dangerously explosive condition and destroyed, 1970”.

Judging by the recent discovery of this film fragment in 2013, it seems a test transfer of part of the film was made earlier in January 1969 by another laboratory (George Humphries & Co) with the end result being very satisfactory. Unfortunately, this is all that exists of the ‘Cross’ collection. Certainly one of the issues, not commented upon in the surviving documentary evidence, is the highly clinical content of the material. It would have been hard to justify retaining the material with such limited appeal. In fact with no immediate likelihood of the material being transferred due to its apparent poor condition, its fate is completely understandable. Of course these days digital scanning and film digitisation technology would have been available and degraded nitrate material can miraculously be brought back to life.  One of the best examples of restoration in action was the rediscovery in 1994 of 800 35mm nitrate reels made by Mitchell & Kenyon, a pioneering film company based in Blackburn. Excerpts can be viewed on the BFI’s youtube channel.

Author: Angela Saward, Wellcome Library curator, Moving Image and Sound

The digitised film footage is free to download from the Wellcome Library catalogues.  Files are distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales licence.

Learn more about the Moving Image and Sound Collection at the Wellcome Library.

Angela Saward

Angela Saward is curator of the Moving Image and Sound Collection at the Wellcome Library.

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