Lecture 1

Samuel Alexander Kinnier Wilson, [Lecture 1], 1924-5. A film of patients at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, Queen Square London. The film was restored and published by Movement Disorders in 2011 (Reynolds, Healy, and Lees 2011), a journal that continues to distribute film material. This is likely the oldest surviving neurological film made in Britain.

The earliest ‘neurological’ film clips lasted a few seconds each. They showed patients with the unravelled balance and uncoordinated movement of ataxia, the agitation of chorea, and the rigidity of Parkinson’s disease.

They were screened by Paul Schuster to a national audience of physicians and scientists in Braunschweig on 22 September 1897 (Podoll Lüning 1998, Curtis 2015). At the time there was as single German university with a professorship dedicated to neurology. It was a year old, as old as cinema. Those who focused on the nervous system around 1897 instead held appointments in internal medicine, psychiatry, or ‘nervous medicine’ though clinical wards and societies were increasingly labelled ‘neurological’ in the new century. In one way, film slipped right into this emerging discipline. Schuster’s audience would have already been familiar with visual displays at conferences. Neurologists avant la lettre projected lantern slides illustrating patients and post-mortem preparations, and demonstrated exemplary patients and experiments in vivo. Film was a further didactic tool to stabilise and reproduce characteristic clinical conditions. It could also link patients otherwise stuck in rural rehabilitation centres with students in urban teaching wards (Weiser 1919), and it freed the presenter and the audience from recalcitrant patients who failed to perform at will.

But wasn’t there also more to film?

Film, I argue, shaped neurology and made a bewildering array of eponymous disorders, clinical signs, and neuropathological finding into a coherent body of knowledge. It shaped what it meant to be neurological. Schuster, after all, showed his film clips as German neurologists and psychiatrists were accused of worshiping ‘brain mythologies’. The criticism was being levelled against those who sought to localise all nervous disorders in the brain. –Was it thus film that distanced neurology from the criticism that it was only interested in the brain, accessible only after death?

Was it film that separated neurology from psychiatry (and its questions of constitution, heredity, and physiognomy) and psychoanalysis (and its focus on spoken and unspoken accounts)?

Was it film that reinforced neurology as a somatic and clinical field of movement disorders, firmly linked to reflex arcs? And thus is this 1931 film, ‘Typical gaits and foot exercises’, one of the most typical of neurological films?


Comment (LM)

I am intrigued by the idea of how film contributed to the creation of a tangible, organised body of knowledge – both the production of a certain way of documenting patients and their diseases as well as stabilising a way of “seeing” these patients and what they suffered from.

If indeed we take 1895 – the first public screening of the Lumiere brothers in Paris – as the year in which cinema was “born”, the film Kathryn discusses has been made in an exciting time. Important to note, too, is how “uncut” and “raw” these clips may seem – showing sometimes the same over and over again, even just for a few seconds) is that these films, too, are “cut”, composed – as odd as it seems for our eyes today, so much more acquainted and used to film as a tool – of training, but also of leisure and entertainment.

Foucault discusses the birth of the neurological body, wherein patients are asked to perform certain tasks as a major shift in the portrayal and approach of the patient. When the patient is asked to move his knee, or look to the right, he can now say “no” (Foucault 2003). This makes the question what role film plays in the distinction between psychiatry and neurology fascinating – its focus on truth-telling and regimes of authority wherein the psychiatrist can tell what’s wrong with the patient’s mind (even if the patient cannot see this for himself or does not agree) – film opens up a whole new range of diagnosing but also to “counter” this same diagnosis. What can film “do”, or what can film offer to make patients “do” something with film?


Aubert, Genevieve. 2002. Arthur Van Gehuchten takes neurology to the movies. Neurology. Volume 59 (10) – 1612-1618

Foucault, Michel. 2003 Le pouvoir psychiatrique. Cours au Collège de France (1973-1974). Paris : Gallimard/Seuil (Hautes Etudes).


Aubert, G. ‘Neurological illustration: from photography to cinematography’, in S. Finger, F. Boller, K.L. Taylor (eds), Handbook of clinical neurology 95 (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2010), 289-302.

Bonah, C., and A. Laukötter, ‘Moving pictures and medicine in the first half of the 20th century: some notes on international historical developments and the potential of medical film research’, Gesnerus 66, no. 1 (2009): 121-146.

Essex-Iopresti, M. ‘The medical film 1897-1997: Part I. The first half-century’, Journal of audiovisual media in medicine 21:1 (1998), 7-12.

Podoll, K. and J Lüning. ‘Geschichte des wissenschaftlichen Films in der Nervenheilkunde in Deutschland 1895-1929‘, Fortschritte der Neurologie und Psychiatrie 66 (1998), 122-132.

Reynolds, E. H., Healy, D. G. and Lees, A. J. ‘A film of patients with movement disorders made in Queen Square, London in the Mid-1920s by Samuel Alexander Kinnier Wilson‘, Movement disorders, 26 (2011): 2453–2459. doi:10.1002/mds.23536

Scott, C. The shape of spectatorship: art, science, and early cinema in Germany (New York City: Columbia University Press, 2015), particularly chapter 2, ‘Between observation and spectatorship: medicine, movies, and mass culture’

Weiser, M. Medizinische Kinematographie (1919).