Doctors abroad: travel & far flung places

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By | From the Collections

In honour of home movie day on 19th October, we have created a playlist on the Wellcome Library’s youtube channel of amateur films shot by doctors and others on their travels. The earliest footage, A day at Gebel Moya, briefly features our founder, Sir Henry Wellcome, in a film  of the archaeological digs he established in the Sudan 1912-13 (he is seated watching a race wearing a white suit and matching pith helmet). This material was shot on 35mm and is one of the rare survivors of this early period of cinematic history in the collection. Our film collection then starts to grow exponentially from the 1930s onwards – semi-professional and amateur movie making really taking off from this time with more affordable cameras using 16mm safety film becoming more available. Film became within the means of the professional middle classes – and, fortunately, doctors tended to be both well-travelled and handy with a 16mm movie camera.

A recent discovery in the collection is six 16mm films of the BMA World Tour which took place in 1935. It was an odyssey starting in Southampton  to New York; across the USA via Washington, Chicago, Albuquerque, the Grand Canyon and Los Angeles to San Francisco; by ship to Hawaii, Fiji, Auckland (an excursion here to the Rotorua geothermal sites) and Sydney; by train to Melbourne and Canberra; by ship once more from Sydney ( to Brisbane, Macassar, Bali, Java (visiting Surabaya, Borobudur and Batavia (Djakarta)) and Singapore; by train to Kuala Lumpur and Penang; by sea again to Colombo, Bombay, Aden, Suez, Malta and Marseille; finally by train and ferry back to London.

BMA Round the World Tour

BMA Round the World Tour

The film opens with a charming cinematic device of a journal’s pages opening, then proceeds with helpful intertitles and photographs of the ship as the voyage progresses. The quality of the film is variable due to different levels of exposure, although it is mostly shot in daylight and may have been shot by several travellers, before it was collated and edited together later. The travellers used Pickfords (perhaps better known these days for their removal services) to organise their travel, who  subcontracted the editing to Mssrs Kodak Ltd. The films were then sold after the trip as a memento of the journey; the British Medical Association has a set of the films relating to itinerary 2 which started from Liverpool, travelling across Canada rather than the US (the editors cheated a little as they re-used footage of the ship departing from Southampton – a lot of the footage is identical with a few tweaks here and there).

Footage worthy of a special mention is the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and on arrival at Bombay, a newspaper headline on the dockside with ‘Italian Offensive Resumed’ before they journey to Aden and the Suez Canal. The tour is well-documented in the Wellcome Library – there is a substantial book of the tour with contributions about the places visited together with photographs. The tour involved 200 doctors with their spouses, dependents and friends and the book identifies which passengers followed which of the two main itineraries (with some opting for independent travel, duly noted). We even have a journal written by Mrs Katherine Harman (identical to the one mentioned above) which was acquired independently of these other materials (MS.7394) with a more personal view of the expedition. The six films capture the ‘holiday’ mood of the group; lots of foreign and exotic locations as well as fun and games on board deck (including, for instance, the obligatory games of quoits) and a ceremony to mark when the ship crossed the Meridian. Interestingly, there is no footage of the actual meeting in Melbourne itself!

Some of the film footage which comes into the Moving Image & Sound Collection arrives completely undocumented without even a label on the film can. This can lead to some interesting finds when the material is appraised for the very first time on the steenbeck in the department. We do of course know the provenance of the material – which helps – and with a little more research more details about the material surfaces; Charles King’ World Tour came to us from the AAGBI;  India Tour and the Persian Film by Dr A Smith came from the British Medical Association; the film shot in Brazil relates to Wellcome (the pharmaceutical company)’s activities and the material of Madagascar came from LSHTM. There are no further details about these films which make them something of a mystery.

Digital Fusion Image Library TIFF File

The footage shot by Dr Anthony Stedman Till in 1939-40 is particularly interesting; Till himself donated them to the library and provided some information about them. He set off on his own expedition across Canada and the US in 1939 before the outbreak of war (the later footage, not online, from 1940 relates to his marriage). The footage he shot is mostly colour and as well as being a highly regarded surgeon (his specialism was in thyroid and abdominal surgery), he was a first class amateur film maker. His visit to Canada seems to be of a professional nature with two visits to hospitals – Toronto General Hospital and The Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota. At Toronto General Hospital members of the medical staff are named although some of the footage shot inside is rather dark and a little unsteady. At the Mayo Clinic we are shown an operating theatre with what appears to be open heart surgery taking place. Many major landmarks feature along this journey including the Heights of Abraham, Niagara Falls, Rocky Mountains, Vancouver Bay, etc. The footage certainly marked a turning point in Till’s life: in 1940 he joined the RAMC and served in the Middle East, Cape Town and Suez. He was captured and became a POW, imprisoned in Stalag VIIA. As a POW he operated on fellow prisoners and local civilians, then at some point (according his obituary) was repatriated to the UK for his services (he spoke fluent German). He was then part of the 181st Field Ambulance, which was in the vanguard of the medical relief of Bergen-Belsen (a Nazi concentration camp; a historical dramatization of the liberation of the camp, The Relief of Belsen, was supported by a Wellcome Trust Grant 2007).

Angela Saward

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

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