“Stronger and Whiter Light Down Deeper and Darker Holes”: Jacob Sarnoff and the Strange World of Anatomical Filmmaking

For some reason, I love this image, from Sarnoff's The Human Body in Pictures. It's so stylish!
For some reason, I love this image, from Sarnoff’s The Human Body in Pictures (1927). It’s so stylish!

I have an essay up over on the National Library of Medicine’s Medical Movies on the Web site about Jacob Sarnoff, a Brooklyn surgeon who made thousands of anatomical and surgical films. I’m also so excited that the NLM posted Sarnoff’s weird 1927 film “The Human Body in Pictures.”

From the essay:

Motion pictures’ utility for surgeons might seem to be their ability to show things just as they appear to an observer present at the scene. But a film like Sarnoff’s suggests that there is a gulf between what mechanical reproduction shows and the way that something like circulation actually appears to the surgeon present.

For surgeons like Sarnoff, the value of film wasn’t only, or even chiefly, its ability to mechanically reproduce reality, but its ability to function as a dynamic college: to offer students of surgery a lesson on how to move back and forth seamlessly between the messy substance of reality and the neat diagrams that populate anatomical atlases.

I was especially happy to write something for the NLM because the Library’s History of Medicine division has been invaluable to my work. From my first, exploratory research into my dissertation, their librarians and archivists have been true research partners (and sometimes cheerleaders!). The History of Medicine division does invaluable work, and I’m so grateful to its staff.

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