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Wellcome Film of the Month: Rehabilitation of injured sailors (Parts 1 & 2), 194?

31 Mar, 2012

These newly discovered films have been languishing in obscurity in our film store until a recent preservation audit to detect vinegar syndrome across our film collection unearthed some uncatalogued material. Vinegar syndrome affects the acetic base of motion pictures and the degradation causes the film to emit a powerful smell of acetic acid. The testing process is very simple; acid detection strips are placed in the film cans and then checked for visible changes on a scale from 0-3. Luckily only a small amount of films have been affected; they are immediately identified for transfer and then placed in cooler environmental conditions.

Rehabilitation of injured sailors by the Seamen’s Hospital Society, London is a film in two reels and dates from the 1940s. The film is in pristine condition (and completely unaffected by vinegar syndrome). The activities depicted in the film relate exclusively to the ‘new’ Albert Dock Hospital, which opened in 1938. The hospital was established to treat merchant seamen and ensure that if they were injured in any way, then they could return to employment. Prior to the inception of the National Health Service in 1948, health provision was rather fragmented and the Seamen’s Hospital Society, a charitable organisation, maintained a number of hospitals in London specialising in treating different conditions.

The Seamen’s Hospital Society had an illustrious history. One of its greatest achievements was eliminating scurvy from the merchant navy in the 19th century. The discipline of tropical medicine was also established as a result of treating the many sick mariners from distant part of the British Empire. Although many of these hospitals no longer exist today, the society does continue its charitable work.

The surgical director, H. E. Griffiths MS, FRCS, mentioned in the credits to the film was appointed surgeon to the old Albert Dock Hospital in 1920 and later became the director of the Accident and Rehabilitation Centre in the new hospital. He was instrumental in rehabilitating disabled merchant mariners as well as dockyard workers and returning them to employment (illustrated in the film). This would date the film after 1938, but probably before 1944. F.A. Lyon, the administrator at the hospital, wrote to the British Medical Journal in March 1942, to draw attention to Griffiths’ pioneering work in this field. However, the original purpose of the film and its audience are unknown. It could plausibly have been shown to new patients to depict the regime in the hospital, to raise funds or to disseminate the work of the hospital further and perhaps secure credit for its work.

The first reel of the film is in black and white and the second, in colour with vintage sepia intertitles. Both reels are silent and, to all appearances, the film looks older than it really is. The film is framed by an accident that befalls an everyman mariner named ‘Abel Seaman’.

There is a fictionalised narrative interspersed with treatments and enthusiastically performed rehabilitation exercises. The patient is hoisted from a ship onto the dock with good views of the dockside. The Seaman’s Hospital Society ambulance transports him to the hospital. A radiant heat bath controlled by a thermostat is made ready (it is suspended from the ceiling). A rather camera shy, bespectacled young black nurse attends to the patient in the background (a rarity to be captured on film at this time).

The surgical team establish the patient’s blood group. X-rays are taken prior to the leg being placed in plaster. Within 40 seconds they are able to the view the results. The patient goes to the ward where he is made comfortable. Meanwhile, a hospital administrator notifies the man’s employer by telephone that he will be fit and ready for work (in 20 weeks). She receives assurances that his job will be open for him when he is well.

The second reel opens with an intertitle stating that; “Getting fit is a whole time job”. Men, two with broken legs, one with a broken arm in casts catch and throw a ball over a net. A group of elderly rather bemused Indian men watch them (it is unclear whether they are patients or staff. Earlier in the twentieth century there had been a tradition of hiring lascars, Indian men from the subcontinent on British ships). Next, various competitive games are held. A nurse watches, chatting to a man. The men practice bowling then some more fun games. Gardening is also available (the allotments back onto terraced housing alongside the hospital). Inside there are exercise bikes for the men to use. There’s also table tennis and an amusing obstacle race. Catering is shown and then finally the patient, who has recovered, returns to work. The opening intertitle is repeated.

A few testimonies about the hospital can be found online; they indicate that the hospital was remembered with some fondness by local residents who lived cheek-by-jowl with it and on occasion sought treatment there. A poster, aptly named Albert, noted that as a child he avoided playing with his friends close to the hospital entrance as he believed that the mortuary bins sited there contained amputated limbs – in fact they were discarded plaster casts!

Angela Saward

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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