Medical History on Screen: Astonishing Archival Footage at NIH

In buildings across, around and even under Washington DC, a treasure trove of film, video, audio and image archives awaits in orderly fashion to be viewed and, permissions gathered, to be used. One such is the intriguing History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine which houses a vast collection of more than 8,000 cataloged films and video material depicting PTSD, military hospitals, World War II-era public health films and convulsive shock therapy to name but a few. There is a preponderance of older research-based film and video, PSAs and government documentary footage with more than 900 titles dating from before 1950 largely in the public domain. There is even a bit of material related to Vietnam.

Of course not everything is digitized. No problem there! In addition to the online public access catalog LocatorPlus, resident archivist Sarah Eilers provides exceptional support and will even send you an online screener if you cannot make it through the door (but don’t go too wild, there is an understandable limit of 5-6 screeners a month). Ms. Eilers even brings collection gems to light through the division’s blog Circulating Now which describes such tidbits as a film about midwifery in the 1930s Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, open heart surgery and George C. Stoney’s 1962 film The Cry for Help which offers a frank depiction of people at risk for suicide. She told us that trending topics among filmmakers and production houses who get in touch from across the globe are the spectrum of mental health issues, eugenics, genetics and AIDS.

Sarah Eilers started working here as a university requirement and now she runs the place. She stayed on because it is fascinating and she warns filmmakers and researchers that when you walk through to door to watch that one reel you need, you are likely to end up spending all day exploring the library and the collection. Sounds like a plan!

– From the laptop of Deirdre Evans-Pritchard, Executive Director at DCIFF