A Touch of France: Cinema, science, and medicine in France

Christian RÉGNIER, MD
Praticien Attaché Consultant
de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Paris
Société Internationale
d’Histoire de la Médecine
9 rue Bachaumont
75002 Paris
Cinema, science, and
medicine in France
by C. Régnier, France

In the 1870s, a forerunner of the motion picture settled a bothersome question. Does a galloping horse ever become airborne? More prosaically, are all four of its hooves ever off the ground at the same time? It fell to the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge to find the answer. Hired by a former governor of California and racehorse owner, Muybridge placed glass-plate cameras along the edge of a race track. As the horse passed each camera it broke a thread and triggered the shutter, thus generating a series of photographs. Muybridge copied these as silhouettes onto a disc and, using his invention the zoopraxiscope, showed that there was indeed “unsupported transit,” a fleeting moment when the horse was airborne. The zoopraxiscope later came to be regarded as an early movie projector, and with it Muybridge wrote a page in the history of early cinematography. So too did the French astronomer Jules Janssen, with his “photographic revolver,” which he used in Japan in 1874 to record the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. And above all there was Étienne-Jules Marey, a French doctor and physiologist who developed the chronophotograph and other instruments for pioneering analysis in humans and animals of locomotion and physiological processes like blood flow, breathing, and the beating heart. These and other pioneers were driven by their thirst for scientific understanding. Others, meanwhile, had their eyes on the immense commercial and artistic potential of the new technique of motion pictures. At the close of the 19th century, the American engineer Thomas Edison, the French industrialists Louis and Auguste Lumière, and the French illusionist Georges Méliès joined the adventure of the new cinematography. Industrial logic, the drive for profitability, and the lure of wealth drove them, and led to clashes with scientists who saw cinematography purely as a research and educational tool. From its beginnings in the laboratories of science, cinema had become a show, a leisure activity accessible to everyone. Dubbed the seventh art (after architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry, and dance) by the Italian film theoretician Ricciotto Canudo, the motion picture was able to portray all aspects of life whether scientific or fictional.

Medicographia. 2013;35:237-245 (see French abstract on page 245)

Today’s cinemagoers, accustomed as they are to computer- generated three-dimensional images full of sound and fury, would have scant regard for a 45-second silent film with the humdrum title Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. Yet motion pictures were born that March day in 1895, when the Lumière brothers Louis and Auguste showed their film to a gathering of scientists at the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. Sons of a manufacturer of photographic equipment, the Lumières screened the film using their “cinematograph,” which combined a camera and projector to recreate movement. Not everyone present was thrilled. Étienne-Jules Marey, the President of the Academy of Sciences, was sickened by what he saw: intellectual theft. The Lumière brothers’ projector, he said, was his invention, the chronophotograph, hijacked and poorly disguised by the addition of a cam for perforated films. Marey was interested solely in science and biology, and was hostile to the commercial exploitation of moving pictures.1,2 As a pioneer of the analysis of movement, he developed a chronophotographic projector using unperforated film to record and study normal and abnormal human gait, the beating of a perfused frog heart, airborne birds and insects, swimming rays, even the movement of smoke trails.

Frames from Moving Horse, filmed by physiologist Étienne-Jules
Marey (left) and
Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, filmed by
the Lumière Brothers in 1895. © Album/Oronoz/akg-images.

Cinema, a godsend for showmen and industrialists

The principle of moving images was not new and various animation devices were invented in the middle years of the 19th century. The thaumatrope, beloved of every child, relies on the persistence of vision to combine two separate images into one: a bird on one side of a spinning card, its cage on the other. The phenakistiscope, zootrope, kinetiscope, and praxinoscope (the latter invented in France in 1877 by Charles Émile Reynaud) all created the illusion of movement, and in 1891 Thomas Edison patented his kinetoscope and a camera, the kinetograph, which used perforated 35-mm film. The kinetoscope’s continuous lighting offered closed loop images for one viewer at a time. This wealth of ideas and inventions knew no limit; nor, it should be added, did intellectual property disputes or wrangling over patent applications (nearly 150 in France in 1896).1

Charles-Émile Reynaud’s praxinoscope projector (invented in
1877) and projection image (1887). © Bettmann/CORBIS.

Left: Thomas Edison (1847-1931), inventor of the phonograph, the light bulb, and the motion picture camera, and holder of 1093
patents, in his laboratory, ca 1915. © Bettmann/CORBIS. Right: Thomas Edison’s first motion picture camera (1891). © CORBIS.

In December 1895, the Lumière brothers screened what was probably the first ever comedy film. L’Arroseur Arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinkled) was shown to an audience of 33 in the Indian Salon of the Grand Café, on the boulevard des Capucines in Paris. The entry charge was 1 franc—to put this into context, the salon could be rented for a whole year for 30 francs. The success was immediate, and lasting as word of mouth ensured that for weeks on end people came to the film show at the Grand Café—between 2000 and 2500 every day. Emboldened by their triumph, the Lumière brothers trained operators and sent them on filming trips around the world, while use of their cameras spread among fairground cinemas. Among those at the first screening of The Sprinkler Sprinkled that December day was the illusionist Georges Méliès. He quickly acquired a camera and in 1897 opened a film studio at Montreuil-sous-Bois, near Paris, where he founded his company Star-Film. A pioneer in special effects, Méliès made one thousand 125-meter (4-minute) films, and won worldwide acclaim with his masterpiece Le Voyage Dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon). Méliès trod not the cinematic road of the quest for knowledge, but that of a storyteller making films for the general public.1

Poster for L’Arroseur Arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinkled) screened in 1895 by the Lumière
Brothers. © Bettmann/CORBIS.

Film still from A Trip to the Moon, a movie by Georges Méliès (1902), based on the novel From the Earth to the Moon, by Jules Verne.
Méliès directed 555 films between 1896 and 1914. © Bettmann/CORBIS.

Industrialists, too, sought to exploit the potential of moving images. Georges Demenÿ, Marey’s assistant at the physiology annex of the Collège de France, started out studying the movements of the mouth during speech. In May 1892, at the first International Exhibition of Photography in Paris, he presented thirty or so moving images mouthing the phrase “je vous aime” (I love you). Demenÿ also invented the phonoscope, which recorded both images and sound, to teach deaf-mutes how to speak. He soon recognized, though, the commercial potential of his invention, changed tack, and set up a company (Société Générale du Phonoscope) to focus on the industrial exploitation of his process.3

Using an improved version of his phonoscope, Demenÿ then filmed short photograms, “living portraits” of people uttering a few words, and everyday scenes unrelated to his original scientific endeavors. The breach with Marey, who was opposed to the commercial exploitation of moving pictures, was not long in coming, and in 1894 Demenÿ was forced to resign from the Collège de France. Unfazed, Demenÿ is believed to have filmed the national funeral of Louis Pasteur on 5 October 1895 using 6-mm film, and two years later invented the 35-mm version of his camera. Unversed in the ways of business, Demenÿ sought help from Léon Gaumont, the founder of the French production company L. Gaumont et Cie, which manufactured projection equipment and cameras. Demenÿ fared badly in the venture and his process was bought by Gaumont, thus bringing to an untimely end this first marriage between science and industry.1,3

Birth of the French scientific film

In 1898, Dr Eugène Doyen, a well-known surgeon, paid someone to film him performing a hysterectomy and a craniotomy (his specialties) in his private clinic on the rue Piccini in Paris. When his surgeon colleagues of the Academy of Medicine balked at showing his films in public, Doyen himself paid for their projection. They showed medium-close shots, with no décor, and were intended for teaching purposes, though Doyen did not hesitate to show them to an “impressionable” public. The surgeon Jean-Louis Faure, another pioneer of surgical films, said of Doyen’s films that they were of great educational value, but tended to showiness, which, he felt, marred the demonstration of the surgical technique.

A few years later Doyen hired a camera operator to film his surgical separation of Doodica and Radica, conjoined twins who starred in Barnum and Bailey’s touring cabinet of curiosities. The sober staging and style seemed to invite viewers to abandon their role as onlookers and become protagonists. The resulting “scientific” film—La Séparation des Soeurs Siamoises Doodica et Radica—trespassed into the realm of show business. Worse was to come. Negatives of the filmwere kept by the camera operator and distributed in France and beyond for projection at cafés chantants. What had started life as a medical demonstration, ended in ghoulishness. Tarnished by this unseemly episode, and by the resulting legal tussles and controversy, Doyen fell from grace.

The conjoined twins Doodica and Radica, joined at the chest
(xiphopagus twins), surgically separated by Eugène Doyen in 1902.
Although the operation itself was a success, Doodica died shortly
after the separation, and Radica succumbed to tuberculosis in
1903. © IAM/akg/World History Archive.

Then there was the question of copyright. Who exactly owned such films? The film maker or the surgeon? And what of the patient, without whom there would be no film? The fifty or so films of Doyen’s surgical procedures were leased to the Éclipse company, later transferred to Gaumont, and then acquired by Doyen’s heirs, only to go up in smoke during a bombing raid in World War II.4-6

Up to the outbreak of war in 1914, industrial scientific films were highly popular in France. Most French production companies—Pathé, Gaumont, Éclair, Éclipse—opened studios to make short films which in general were shown in cinemas, before the newsreel and the main feature.When the production units joined forces with genuine laboratories with animal facilities, an aquarium, a vivarium, biology, chemistry, and physics departments, their films acquired an educational purpose. Some 450 onereelers popularizing science were produced in the four years before the war. To kindle the interest of younger viewers and to overcome any mind-wandering, the films showed odd or unfamiliar creatures and insects. The industrialist Charles Pathé was convinced of their educational value, saying that “the cinematograph will be the theater, newspaper, and school of tomorrow.” Édouard Petit, the chief inspector of schools, begged to differ, believing that in the cinema “the somewhat rushed sequence of images deforms the slow and progressive work of nature.”7-9

To adapt to the large variations in the duration of natural or biological phenomena, the scientific film from the outset used techniques that would later be adopted by those making films for cinematic storytelling: slow motion and time-lapse photography. One of Marey’s collaborators, the photographer Lucien Bull, originated high-speed cameras which, in the early 1900s, filmed at 1200 and then 4000 images per second, and over the years he refined them until by 1951 they could record one million images per second. Bull also invented a camera for microcinematography capable of 8- to 10-fold magnification.7,8

Interest in scientific films waned at the start of the First World War and laboratories were dismantled and their staff laid off. Scientific documentaries took their place, but were less popular and designed for a different purpose: the dissemination of scientific knowledge to prepared minds and the creation of audiences keen on this type of film.

Using itinerant film shows to teach public hygiene

In 1917, as the United States of America joined forces with the Allies in World War I, the Rockefeller Foundation sent a commission to France “to aid that country in organizing a fight upon tuberculosis, by which under existing conditions the population was seriously menaced.”10 The Commission for the Prevention of Tuberculosis in France was solemnly welcomed by French President Raymond Poincaré on 9 August 1917. It was funded by The Rockefeller Foundation to the tune of $522 459 (the equivalent today of roughly 45 million euros), and included training courses for doctors and health visitors, the running of dispensaries throughout France (70% of the population lived in rural areas), and “a campaign of popular education by means of traveling exhibits, lectures, slides, moving pictures, posters, pamphlets, and press articles.”10 Five circulating educational units known as the “roulottes d’hygiène” (hygiene caravans) traveled the length and breadth of France. Aboard each were an electrical generator, film projection equipment, films, documents, 42 exhibition posters, and five people: the (American) film director, a female lecturer, a male lecturer, a mailman, and a “driver-cinematographer.”

One of the Rockefeller Foundation’s traveling
educational units (roulottes d’hygiene),
which crisscrossed France from 1917
to 1925 as part of a mission to fight tuberculosis.
Photo published in Cinémagazine
No. 49, on 23 December 1921.

Doctor Jean Comandon (1877-1970), a
precursor of medical and hygiene documentaries,
with more than 400 films to his credit.

Public health propaganda using moving pictures spread in France during World War I after the setting up of an extra parliamentary commission to study how to extend the use of cinematography to other areas of teaching. Most films shown by the Rockefeller mission, some 150 in all, were produced by Pathé and by Gaumont. Their titles left little to the imagination: Don’t Spit on the Ground, Beware the Fly, Don’t Lick your Fingers to Turn the Page, The Slums Must be Vanquished, Fingernails in Mourning.11 These and like films were aimed at teachers and university lecturers, the middle classes, soldiers, housewives, and workers. And above all children, for whom the Rockefeller lecturers ran “health crusades” with the added incentive of prizes. Between 1917 and 1922, the Rockefeller mission organized 6800 talks, distributed 15 million leaflets, and launched extensive American-style press campaigns. Close to three million French people attended the talks and lectures.11 After World War I, public health education using films continued, notably in the fight against tuberculosis through the National Committee for Defense Against Tuberculosis (which took over the films of the Rockefeller mission). The task of making new films was entrusted to Jean Benoît-Lévy, who between 1920 and 1944 made to order for various governmental ministries almost 300 one-reelers and 15 features. These scientific and educational films were made in consultation with medical officers, notably Dr Louis Devraigne, head of the maternity ward at the Lariboisière Hospital in Paris, who gave advice (and provided scripts). In 1927 alone ten million French people attended these film shows, which were the educational medium most popular with the working classes and rural populations.12,13

Designed to appeal to, and so to educate, the general public, Benoît-Lévy’s films extolled the values of humanism and of republican science. Produced by the Société d’édition cinématographique française, which Benoît-Lévy created in 1922, there were films on cancer, the prevention of syphilis, and alcoholism. The first great film recounted the life and work of Louis Pasteur. Others followed, like The Mother-To-Be on infant care, The Sacred Veil on visiting nurses, and Maternity, which advocated a pro-birth policy.

Jean Painlevé (1902-1989) filming an aquarium for his documentary L’Hippocampe,
with a high-speed Debrie GV camera, in Port-Blanc, Brittany, around 1925.
© Les Documents cinématographiques, Paris.

In a December 1932 interview, Benoît- Lévy spoke of his belief that educational films have much in common, and oftentimes are confused, with drama films, from which they borrow ideas on how to be more compelling. Benoît-Lévy felt that educational films fall into two clearly distinct genres: those used to illustrate a talk and to transmit understanding, and those shown in ordinary film theaters and intended to appeal to heart and soul. Education, Benoît-Lévy believed, speaks above all to the intellect in the first genre, and to the sentiments in the second, provided, that is, mind and heart can be partitioned so neatly.12,14

Making the transition to the talkies, Benoît-Lévy produced two realistic films—Itto and Hélène—in which the image of the rebellious woman, mistress of her own destiny, contrasted sharply with the silent images of Maternity.12 He also made films for the teaching of surgery, as part of a medical-surgical cinematographic encyclopedia, a project curtailed by the outbreak of war in 1939.

A new genre: the independent
science documentary

Dr Jean Comandon “filmed the invisible.” A maker of scientific films before World War I, Comandon later moved on to documentaries. His research on microcinematography at the Saint Louis Hospital in Paris was given technical backup by Pathé, which he joined in 1906 to work its laboratory. There he made films like Crystallization, The Curious Soldier Flies: The Stratiomyidae, and The Movement of Plants.

Beset by financial difficulties, Pathé stopped producing scientific films in 1926 and closed the laboratory where Comandon worked. Already the recipient of various distinctions and awards for his work, Comandon set up a scientific cinematography lab at the Institut Pasteur in Garches (near Paris) where he made films like The Phagocytosis of Trypanosomes byWhite Blood Cells and The Circulation of Blood.15,16

In the 1920s, film clubs, educational cinema offices, and specialized projection rooms ensured the survival of scientific cinema in a new form where mostly documentary films were shown to the public. Jean Painlevé bestrode French scientific cinema of the 1920s. Biologist, scriptwriter, friend of the surrealists, humanist, jewelry designer, racing car driver— the world of science scoffed at Painlevé’s eclecticism, unconvinced that cinema was a tool of scientific research. Painlevé was one of the founders of the Institut de Cinématographie Scientifique and of the Commission Supérieure de l’Image et du Son, which allied science and cinema. He even acted in the film The Unknown Woman of Six Days directed by René Sti to fund the anatomy and histology laboratory of the Sorbonne. He gave talks illustrated by films at the French Academy of Sciences on the larvae of midges of the Chironomidae family (which contains some 5000 species). Also a diver, Painlevé made numerous scientific documentaries of aquatic animal life, like the landmark documentary on sea horses L’Hippocampe ou “Cheval Marin” (filmed through an aquarium!).

“Buste d’Hippocampe” (sea horse bust),
photographed by Jean Painlevé, around 1930.
© Les Documents cinématographiques, Paris.

Painlevé was friends with renowned film directors like Jacques Prévert, Henri Langlois, Georges Franju, Sergei Eisenstein, Luis Buñuel, Jean Vigo, and Abel Gance. He used musicians in the making of his documentaries like L’Hippocampe, for which Darius Milhaud wrote the music, and in The Vampire, in which the life of a vampire bat was illustrated by the music of Duke Ellington, including Echoes of the Jungle (Painlevé was a jazz pianist too!).

Doctor Albert Calmette (1863-1933), who,
together with his assistant Camille Guérin,
developed the BCG vaccine against tuberculosis.
© Wellcome Library, London.

In all, Painlevé took part in the making of almost 200 films, using the latest technologies: underwater filming, special effects, steadycam. In 1930, he made a militant four-minute film in which he declared his support for the use of citrate in anticoagulation to stem massive bleeding, as recommended by a physician with the rank of general in the French military, but recently refused by the French Defense Health Service Authorities.17,18 Dr Pierre Thévenard started his career as a film scientific director in 1934 by making 35-mm films on urologic surgery and followed this up with an uninterrupted series of science documentaries and films, some of which won awards: Beware of Vipers, Ultrasound, The Killer Mushroom, The True Culprit, a drama commissioned by the French welfare system to warn of the dangers of induced abortion, The Question of Cancer, an encyclopedic review in thirteen reels, and The Adventures of a Bluebottle. A good number of Thévenard’s films were set to music by André Jolivet, while popular actors and members of the Comédie Française did the voiceovers. After Thévenard joined the scientific cinematography laboratory of the Institut Pasteur, he was commissioned to make a documentary on Albert Calmette, co-discoverer of the bacillus Calmette-Guérin, used in vaccination against tuberculosis. This and other films brought Thévenard international renown.8,19


Movies have long depicted stories of medical practitioners in a bewildering array of guises: the hospital bigwig, a country doctor, a physician and humanist, the doomed hero, the medic guilty of malpractice, a doctor in the colonies, murderers, cranks. Illness and the afflicted too have well served many an intrigue on the silver screen: the Machiavellian gimp, the fragile and vulnerable heart patient, the erratic mental patient, the consumptive condemned to a slow death, loathsome misshapenness and disfigurement, the chilling diagnosis of cancer, traumatic childbirth. The sick and the lame have served as a mirror, a conceit, a vehicle for a social conception of disease and suffering.20 _

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