1930s brain surgery footage, now available online

The Wellcome Trust, with UK-based media management provider JCA, has converted its collection of 20th Century medical footage into an online archive accessible to filmmakers and scholars. Realscreen spoke to JCA's Matt Bowman and the Wellcome Trust's Angela Saward about the ongoing project.
May 13, 2010

Biomedical charity the Wellcome Trust is known to the filmmaking community as a funder of scientific programming such as Blink Films and Cream Productions’ The Great Sperm Race and the programs it awards funding to through its pitching session at Sheffield Doc/Fest. But over the past three years the Trust has also been digitizing a collection of 20th Century medical footage to be made available online for a varied group of users; from filmmakers working on science-themed programs to faculties and students in the medical field.

The footage is available under open access conditions, which the Wellcome Trust’s curator of moving image and sound, Angela Saward, says is a part of the Trust’s ethos. As a scientific charity, one of its main goals is to promote scientific knowledge. At the beginning of the project Saward was tasked with looking at the unseen collection of raw footage critically and strategically to decide what people would want to see and then she identified a pool of historical material to be digitized. They put out a competitive tender for the job and found JCA, a UK-based media management provider which specializes in converting media and helping companies to go tapeless.

‘One of our key [motives] is to try to unlock treasures,’ says JCA‘s commercial director Matt Bowman. Of the treasures unlocked within the Wellcome Trust’s catalog, Saward says the most popular sequence has been a film entitled Prefrontal Tuberculoma, a brain surgery film from 1933 which became a hit on the Trust’s YouTube channel. ‘For me, I work in the historical field so nothing much surprises me, but to have other people look at it and then be amazed that brain surgery happened in the 1930s, it really is a revelation,’ says Saward. ‘We’ve found that people have been surprised by the kinds of surgeries that took place and they’ve discussed it and shared it.’

The archive, which is also available through the Wellcome Film site and the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) Film and Sound online service, is still being built up by Saward, who is currently looking for more footage to be digitized into the collection. The types of footage she is currently seeking out include orthopaedic films from the 1930s showing gait, sounds such as heartbeats and breathing for audio digitization and films about skin to tie in with a new exhibition entitled Skin which is being held at the Wellcome Collection in London from June 10 to September 26.

While Saward says it’s too soon to tell how filmmakers and producers might use the footage in the collection, The Trust is looking for new ways to get people engaged with the collection. ‘We’d like to have a small scale, student-led competition where we invite students in any discipline to make a film from our collection,’ she says.

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