Depth Perception: Surgical Film and the Problem of Anatomical Legibility

Jacob Sarnoff (1886โ€“1961) was a pioneering physician-filmmaker. He was an early and enthusiastic proponent of using film to educate new physicians and demonstrate surgical procedures. He made hundreds of films, some of which survive in the archives of the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland.

I’m interested in Jacob Sarnoff because I think his films show us something interesting about the endeavor of putting human anatomy on film. Sarnoff makes use of a wide range of techniques โ€” everything from animation to dissection โ€” to make the body legible on film. They show us how hard it is to capture human anatomy on film, and how much manipulation is required to make the human body conform to surgical diagrams.

Sarnoff and his films are the subject of the second chapter of my dissertation. In this presentation, which I gave at the Society for Cinema Studies in New Orleans in March 2011, I explain who Sarnoff was and what his films can tell us about surgical sight.

I’ve written a bit more about Sarnoff on my website, and you can also check out my sources.

Anatomy on film: the imaginary archive

Frame from Circulatory System (1924)
Frame from Sarnoff's Circulatory System (1924)

A lot of my research is on medical filmmaking: films that physicians and other medical professionals made for each other. It turns out that there are a lot of these. Doctors have been making movies since the invention of the medium.

I’m fascinated by a strain of thought that recurs frequently in discussions of anatomical films. Here’s an example from 1919:

The films of the Surgeon General’s Library will be available to teachers in the army and medical schools and the profession, just as the books in the Surgeon General’s Library are for study and reference.ยน

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