Scientific and Medical Films in the 1920s-1930s

by Andreas Killen

From its origins in the research of Etienne-Jules Marey and others into animal and human locomotion, cinema served as a tool for the analysis of bodies in motion. Even as it developed into the dominant medium of modern mass entertainment, scientists, physicians, and researchers continued to exploit what Hugo Münsterberg extolled as the "incomparable intensity" and scientific value of the moving image. From the perspective of the history of science, the film apparatus - however revolutionary it later came to appear - represented simply a further elaboration of those "hundreds of little machines" devised during the 19th century, all, as Jean-Louis Comolli has written, "destined for the more or less clumsy reproduction of the image and movement of life."

Instanteneous photography: man jumping over a barrier
Instanteneous photography: Man jumping over a barrier, taken from:
Marey. 1883. La station physiologique de Paris, 276, fig. 2.

But what specific purposes did scientific and medical films serve? On the most basic level, scientists and medical specialists embraced film as a teaching tool, a means of documentation and analysis for didactic ends. Motion pictures allowed physiological and clinical phenomena to be fixed and objectified with unequaled precision, thus facilitating instruction about processes otherwise difficult to represent in the lecture hall.

Reference: Killen, Andreas. 2009. Scientific and Medical Films in the 1920s-1930s. The Virtual Laboratory (ISSN 1866-4784),