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The Reward of Courage

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Picture this: The battle of good versus evil set against the backdrop of early 19th century America, where the coming together of two young lovers is threatened by the mistaken belief of an inheritable disease that would afflict their future children. Charlatans who promise quack cures in place of scientific medicine are pitted against the U.S. postal authorities, who crack down on such fraudulent and dangerous claims.

Miss Keene, the nurse at Dr. Dale’s clinic, examines Anna Flint. This is probably the first cinematic representation of a breast examination for cancer.

Sounds like a period science fiction thriller, right? In 1921, the American Society for the Control of Cancer (the ASCC, later renamed the American Cancer Society) produced and the Rockefeller Foundation funded the melodrama “The Reward of Courage.”

The film calls for the establishment of clinics in industrial workplaces to promote worker health and higher productivity, and provides what is likely the first representation in film of a breast examination for cancer.

The Library of Congress acquired the original nitrate print of “The Reward of Courage” in 1998 from the National Film and Sound Archive in Australia (NFSA) as part of an ongoing partnership to repatriate American titles in the NFSA collections.

Today, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) announced the digital release of both the original version of “The Reward of Courage” and the newly scored version, on the NLM’s Medical Movies on the Web, a curated portal featuring selected motion pictures from the NLM’s world-renowned collection of over 30,000 audiovisual titles.

You can watch both the original silent version and the newly scored version of the film on NLM’s YouTube channel.

Part of the animated section of the film shows the spread of cancer and its consequences, highlighted by arrows. The line drawing of the human figure and dark blotches of the tumors also serve to counter the prospect of any paralyzing fear or disgust that might be evoked by a live action image of tumors.

Working with the Library of Congress Moving Image reference staff, NLM discovered the unpreserved and unstable nitrate print in the Library’s collections while doing research on medical films and, in 2006, received a grant to preserve the film. Library of Congress staff at its Motion Picture Conservation Center in Dayton, Ohio pulled the 1,750-foot 35mm reel to make a thorough examination of each frame for repair and cleaning. The film was then sent to Colorlab in Rockville, Md., for the rest of the preservation work, as the original nitrate print was tinted and the Library does not preserve color film, explained Mike Mashon, head of the Library’s Moving Image Section. In exchange for loaning its material, the Library received both a new 35mm safety preservation negative and a tinted safety access print.

“`It’s a fascinating early example in the use of motion pictures to educate moviegoers about public health issues, in this case using a framing narrative of a young couple who fear that their children will inherit a familial predisposition to cancer,” said Mashon. “The Library has thousands of these types of educational films in its collections, films that provide invaluable and vivid examples of the ways in which films have from the very beginning of cinema been used to teach, persuade, cajole, sell and indoctrinate the American public.”

Because of neglect and deterioration over time, more than 80 percent of U.S. movies from the silent era no longer exist in the United States. The Library maintains the largest collection of American films on nitrate film stock in the world, and continues to work with foreign archives to return domestically made films to the United States.


Comments (2)

  1. I’m very glad to read about the restoration of this film! There was a strong wave of confidence in health care reform during this era. I celebrate this at my office with my grandmother’s saved documents from the early 1920’s when both of her children were born. A Certificate of Motherhood was granted to her from a New York college and it offered her free access to advice on raising her children, so long as she was able to produce it during a visit. She also had a very detailed pamphlet about venereal disease and its prevention and treatment, and she saved notebooks from high school in which she even drew detailed pictures of the human anatomy while studying the treatment of various illnesses and how the vital organs worked in the body. These documents indicate a sophisticated awareness of social health issues of the day and in some ways rival in quality the services and education adolescents and young mothers receive today. It’s so rewarding to see that the Library of Congress is restoring this delicate film and others of that era. Thank you.

  2. I have learned a lot more things about cancer that I didn’t know back then. I didn’t know that this was the first film examination for breast cancer. The film was hard to get into because it was silent but I still enjoyed it.

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