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Wellcome Film of the Month: Defeat tuberculosis (1950)

8 Jun, 2012

This month’s film was produced by the government funded Central Office of Information for the Ministry of Health. The Central Office of Information was established in 1946 as the successor to the wartime Ministry of Information:  it was responsible for many memorable film and video health campaigns, but closed as a result of the current Government’s cuts in March this year. Each decade in the twentieth century has had its unique challenges; in the 1940s we are still in a period of epidemic infectious disease such as diphtheria, small pox, polio and tuberculosis.

Defeat Tuberculosis is a salutary tale about the diagnosis and treatment of tuberculosis told through the case of two young working women who are sisters, Joan and Betty. At the time the film was made, deaths from tuberculosis are stated in the film as 23,000 per annum. As a comparison today there are just over 3000 cases in London (representing 38 per cent of the UK’s total); this is a rise in infection rates with significant cause for concern. What becomes clear in the film is that the recommended treatment of artificial pneumothorax (lung rest) followed by an extended spell in bed in a sanatorium required significant resources in terms of nursing and support staff; indeed this had been the case from the Victorian period onwards. The requirement to stop work and leave one’s family caused considerable strains on working families and, no doubt, led to the concealment and stigmatisation of the disease. Although not overtly stated, with the early diagnosis and swift treatment as the focus of this film, we are given the impression that it is the viewer’s duty to co-operate in the free health care programme.

This film, which is a re-edit of an earlier film made in 1943 by a production company called the Seven League Unit and has the same title, was re-versioned to reflect the post-war consensus and the inception of the National Health Service in 1948. The original version was made in the same year that the drug streptomycin was isolated in 1943; it is one of the key drug discoveries of the twentieth century.  However, there was clearly quite a gap between drug discovery and its widespread availability – pharmaceutical companies had to develop the manufacturing expertise to refine the production process from the laboratory to factory and then increase the scale of production required to respond to the demand for drugs from an emerging globalised marketplace (an item, Taballet, on a cine magazine film, Looking Around, 1952, illustrates the manufacturing processes as a rhapsody of machines, music and dancing pills). In fact a vaccine for TB had been available to French children for some time, the ‘BCG’ (Bacillus Calmette-Guérin). It was only adopted in the UK in the 1950s after a drug trial by the British Medical Research Council vindicated its effectiveness.

The 1950 version of Defeat Tuberculosis differs markedly in some details from the 1943 version. Both are black and white with sound, although originally, the cinematic narrative was rather awkward; the dialogue was poorly recorded and mixed with the voice of an unseen narrator. In the newer version, the narrator presents the story and reports the actors’ speech to the audience. As a whole it is more assured and authoritative in tone, perhaps as a result of wartime privations and exposure to government propaganda, the audience would have been more compliant and accepting of its message. The later version is also 4 minutes shorter (notably scenes showing children being treated in the sanatorium have been removed) with the overall effect of the film being far more professional.

Defeat Tuberculosis is a health propaganda film reminding people to take responsibility for their health and the fictionalised story is plausible in its ordinariness. The sisters, who work in the same factory, are introduced to us ; Betty who works as a secretary feels run down and her manager complains that her work is suffering and tells her to see a doctor. Her sister Joan, who works as a machinist goes with her. Firstly Betty is examined by the doctor; it is discovered that she is slightly anaemic. However, Joan’s cough is a cause for concern and he sends them both for chest x-rays. These x-rays are studied. Joan has a patch of tuberculosis on her lungs and she is sent to a sanatorium for treatment. The narrator explains that there are not enough nurses and beds to treat everyone, so some must have home care. A man is shown in bed at home being visited by the tuberculosis health visitor. He spends his time painting in bed. The sanatorium is seen again and Joan has recovered. An animation shows the diseased patch on her lung shrunk to a much smaller size. The narrator introduces the National Health Service’s mass radiography programme. Mobile x-ray units visit towns and villages, and men and women are shown having chest x-rays. The film ends with an intertitle telling people to see a doctor if they suspect anything.

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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