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Medicine and Film

Lecturer: Anna Toropova

The alliance between cinema and medical science dates back to the medium’s development at the end of the nineteenth century. Tracing cinematography’s roots in physiological and neurological studies of human movement, this lecture will explore cinema’s emergence as a key instrument of medical training, scientific research and health education. We will examine the role that the moving image has played in the management and regulation of the human body, but will also consider the ways in which films have challenged the authoritative discourses of biomedicine.


Essay/Discussion Questions:

  1. If cinema promised to advance the production and dissemination of medical knowledge, how should we account for doctors’ suspicions and anxieties about the new medium?
  2. How have audience considerations shaped medical films?
  3. Assess medical cinema’s role in defining ‘health’ and ‘illness’, the ‘normal’ and the ‘pathological’.

Required Readings:

Scott Curtis, The Shape of Spectatorship: Art, Science, and Early Cinema in Germany (2016), Chapter 2, 'Between Observation and Spectatorship: Medicine, Movies, and Mass Culture', 90-141
Andreas Killien, 'Psychiatry and its Visual Culture in the Modern Era', in Greg Eghigian, ed., The Routledge History of Madness and Mental Health (2017), 172-190

Kirsten Ostherr, Medical Visions: Producing the Patient through Film, Television, and Imaging Technologies (2013), Chapter 1, 'Visual Education, Health Communication, and Scientific Filmmaking in the Early Twentieth Century', 28-47


Further Readings:

Andriopoulos, Stefan, Possessed: Hypnotic Crimes, Corporate Fiction, and the Invention of Cinema (Chicago, 2008)

Bonah, Christian, and Anja Laukötter, eds., Body, Capital, and Screens: Visual Media and the Healthy Self in the 20th Century (Amsterdam, 2020)

----. ‘Moving Pictures and Medicine in the First Half of the 20th Century: Some Notes on International Historical Developments and the Potential of Medical Film Research’, Gesnerus 66.1 (2009): 121-46

Bonah, Christian, David Cantor and Anja Laukötter, eds., Health Education Films in the Twentieth Century (Rochester, N.Y., 2018)

Cartwright, Lisa, Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture (Minneapolis, 1995)

Curtis, Scott. ‘“Tangible as Tissue”: Arnold Gesell, Infant Behavior, and Film Analysis’, Science in Context 24.3 (2011): 417-42

Gilman, Sander L., Seeing the Insane (New York, 1982)

Killen, Andreas, Homo Cinematicus: Science, Motion Pictures, and the Making of Modern Germany (Philadelphia, 2017)

Ostherr, Kirsten, Cinematic Prophylaxis: Globalization and Contagion in the Discourse of World Health (Durham, 2005)

Pernick, Martin, The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of ‘Defective’ Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures Since 1915 (New York, 1999)

Schmidt, Ulf, Medical Films, Ethics, and Euthanasia in Nazi Germany (Husum, 2002)

Toropova, Anna, ‘The Hypnotic Screen: The Early Soviet Experiment with Film Psychotherapy’, Social History of Medicine, 35.3 (2022): 946–971

----, ‘Science, Medicine and the Creation of a ‘Healthy’ Soviet Cinema’, Journal of Contemporary History, 55.1 (2020): 3-28

Tosi, Virgilio, Cinema before Cinema: The Origins of Scientific Cinematography (London, 2005)