Here Comes Good Health: The Empty Bed

Here Comes Good Health! is a new exhibit at Wellcome Collection about the health propaganda films made by Bermondsey Borough Council in the 1920s and 1930s. For the residents of Bermondsey, diphtheria posed a serious threat, but one which could be guarded against by immunisation. Elizabeth Lebas writes about a campaign that also touched on issues of personal freedom and entitlement.

The Empty Bed was made towards the end of Bermondsey’s Borough Council’s health propaganda campaign programme and is testimony to the Public Health Department’s fascination with filmmaking and its continuing involvement in the public health issues of the day, in this film immunisation against diphtheria. The campaigns against tuberculosis and diphtheria were quite different in character, although both emphasized the importance of personal responsibility for one’s own and one’s children’s health and the right to universal entitlement to treatment and immunisation. Both were communicable diseases related to poverty and poor living conditions. The difference is that in 1937, when the film was made, diphtheria could be controlled by testing to see whether children could contract diphtheria (the Schick test – explained in a 1932 film now lost, Bermondsey’s Germs) and by inoculation against the diphtheria bacillus. Tuberculosis had then no such ‘cure’ and so nation-wide the public health authorities were all the more anxious to eradicate diphtheria.  However, although the film does not directly address this issue, focusing instead on the hapless ‘Mrs. Smith’, parents were resistant to having their children inoculated with a toxoid and the number of films made by other public health authorities encouraging voluntary immunisation (Birmingham made Diphtheria, Prevention is better than Cure (1935) which shows babies being inoculated on an industrial scale) is a covert recognition of that resistance which also related to the  issues of personal freedom and doubts about the necessity of vaccination.

The film was made by two doctors: Dr. King Brown, former Medical officer of Health (MoH) for Bermondsey and with Dr. Salter, originator of the Department’s film project when in 1922 he produced School in the Sun for the Council. (This film is about the sunlight treatment available to tubercular children at a sanatorium in Switzerland run by Dr. Rollier, a leading light in the European anti-tuberculosis movement regularly visited by members of the Public Health Department.) By 1924 Dr. King Brown had ceased to be MoH and he disappears from the Bermondsey archives until this cinematic project with Dr. Guy Bousfield, director of laboratories  for the neighbouring borough of Camberwell.  In the summer of 2011 the Southwark’s Local History Library received a letter from Dr. Bousfield’s grandson in which he explains in some detail incidents and characters in the making of The Empty Bed; apparently the filmmakers either played themselves or their close friends – Dr. King Brown played Dr. Salter while the surgeon and his female nurse assistant are, according to the letter’s sender, actually Dr. Bousfield and his wife.

The film is both a moral tale and a documentary: harsh things happen to those who do not hear the immunisation message. At the same time it explains clearly and accurately the function and procedure of immunisation and even hints of its transformative qualities. As the happy girls and mother skipping out of the immunisation clinic demonstrate, vaccination is about taking control of one’s health.  This message, first conveyed by Bermondsey’s Public Health Department,  is still central to public and personal health today.

Elizabeth Lebas is the writer of Forgotten Futures: British Municipal Cinema 1920-1980 which surveys municipal film, a tool for urban and social reform in twentieth century Britain. A chapter is devoted to the work of Bermondsey Borough Council, “When Every Street Became a Cinema”.

The films have been recently digitally remastered with material preserved by the British Film Institute and form part of Here Comes Good Health!, an exhibit running at Wellcome Collection from 22 February to 3 June 2012 together with other health educational materials. The films and photographs in the display have been supplied courtesy of Southwark Local History Library and Archive. For more details contact Southwark Local History Library and Archive, 211 Borough High Street, London, SE1 1JA. T: 020 7525 0232 E: local.history.library@southwark.gov.uk.

Find out more about the Wellcome Library’s Moving Image and Sound Collection by searching our digitised film, video and audio or visiting the Wellcome Film YouTube channel.

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