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"The Public Health Film Goes to War:" New National Library of Medicine Web Resource Showcases Rare World War II-Era Movies

The National Library of Medicine, the world's largest medical library and a component of the National Institutes of Health, has created a new online resource, "The Public Health Film Goes to War" (// The site features 18 rare films on public health in wartime from the Library's Historical Audiovisual collections, housed in the History of Medicine Division (HMD). The individual titles are also part of the Library's Digital Collections (//

As the United States entered World War II, filmmaking technology was already 40 years old. The war befcame the great testing ground for the use of motion pictures in public health campaigns, both on the front lines as well as at home, as the health of troops and civilians was seen as integral to victory. Films became part of the government's widespread information and mobilization efforts. The films range from the Private McGillicuddy cartoons promoting personal cleanliness and urged caution about consuming local foods, to documentaries on domestic public health efforts as war industries expanded rapidly and overtook local sanitation efforts. Many of the films are on tropical diseases-such as malaria and yellow fever-and their prevention, while some focus on soldiers and venereal disease, and others on the stress of war.

All of the films have short commentaries and searchable transcripts, as well as full bibliographic data. The site also includes nine public health posters of the era, from the Library's Prints & Photographs collections, an essay by the curator and a bibliography on motion pictures in medicine. All materials on the site are in the public domain, free of copyright.

The problem of motion-picture filmmaking is . . . not primarily one of equipment, photographic technique, and finances, but one of thinking in a visual language which has its own particular grammar, syntax and logic.

-Adolf Nichtenhauser, A History of Motion Pictures in Medicine, 1950.


 public health films photo

Still from Army training film. Army Animation Department, Astoria Film Studios, Queens, New York, 1944.



Still Photo 

Still  from "Cleaning Mess Gear," featuring Private McGillicuddy. Hugh Harman Productions, United States Navy, 1945.Part of a larger campaign to get troops to sterilize mess gear. (Please see related photo, below.)



 Troops sterilizing mess gear

Troops sterilizing mess gear in oil-can barrels of boiling water, South Pacific, ca. 1945. Mess detachment, 20th General Hospital. Courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Washington, DC.



 Still from Winky the Watchman

Still from "Winky the Watchman." Hugh Harman Productions, Tennessee Department of Public Health, with the United States Public Health Service, 1945.