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Wellcome Film of the Month: Don’t spread germs, 1948

28 Oct, 2011

We are now entering the season of colds and ‘flu and this topical film sponsored by the Ministry of Health in the 1940s is one of a series of four about not spreading germs made by the British film-maker, Richard Massingham (1898-1953). The other films in the series; Coughs and Sneezes, 1945 , Influenza, 1946 and  Handkerchief Drill, 1949 follow the same pattern in endeavouring to modify public behaviour; the health message is camouflaged by a sprinkling of slapstick humour.

The featured film shows the correct use and sterilisation of used handkerchiefs, featuring Massingham himself as a hapless and rather long-suffering everyman character. The film was also known as ‘Jet-propelled germs’.

Massingham was well suited to tackling this topic as before setting up his production company, Public Relationship Films, he had been Senior Medical Officer at the London Fever Hospital (the Fever Hospital is no more – it became part of the Royal Free Hospital in 1948).  The documentation for the first film in the series, Coughs and Sneezes, 1945, shows that from when the production company was commissioned to prepare a ‘treatment’ it took five months from beginning to end for the film to released in mid-November of the same year. The film trailed alongside newsreels in cinemas. Presumably, the rest of the series was commissioned with the same timetable in mind, to coincide with seasonal colds.

Despite the passage of fifty years, the health message of a recent video by NHS Choices, Cold or flu?, is very similar. Although we routinely buy and use disposable tissues, thereby removing the need to disinfect hankies, we still need to ensure that ‘germs’ (viruses) are not casually spread by poor hygiene. If the NHS were to return to a 1940s public information film aesthetic, then an excellent starting point for a script would be the “£10 note test” outlined in the video; if you see a £10 note on the floor and can pick it up, then you probably have a cold rather than ‘flu. If asked to make a film on this subject, Massingham would have used slapstick to good effect.

Angela Saward, Wellcome Film 

You can learn about the Wellcome Film project here. If you would like to make use of this archive footage in your own projects, please visit the Wellcome Library catalogue to download the original files, which are distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales licence.

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