Public Health in the Archive

Film, television and radio have always been helpful tools for promoting public health. Between 1pm COVID lockdown briefings, we searched our collection to find creative ways that information about disease outbreaks, medicine and hygiene were communicated to past audiences. This selection takes us from the invention of antibiotics to the HIV pandemic, but there’s plenty more on this topic to explore in the catalogue.

Just a note that medicine has advanced since these items were made and what was once cutting-edge information may no longer be officially endorsed. 

Health Camps for Happiness (1937)  

In this newsreel, Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage promotes the King George V Memorial Fund for Health Camps. Health camps offered children six weeks of fresh air, exercise and nutritious food, as well as lessons on hygiene. Following this, Savage notes the children ‘return home with a health insurance policy fully paid up for several years ahead’. Coming at the end of the Great Depression, the appeal to help children gain weight seems very poignant.  

Health Camps for Happiness

If you’re interested in health camps, we hold a number of other items including this Mobile Unit radio report from Otago in 1948. 

Spinning Wheels (1938)  

This Government-produced film about road safety takes an unforgiving approach to road rules, and even suggests that risk takers ’may well deserve the pain and suffering’ of an accident.  

Spinning Wheels takes us on a tour of Wellington streets, filled with dramatic re-enactments of near misses and accidents, and demonstrates correct behaviour for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. It’s striking how scientific this film’s approach is, marshalling figures to make an intellectual rather than emotional case for careful driving. All in all, very different to modern road safety campaigns.  

Spinning Wheels

For more vintage road safety films, see our blog post from the end of 2020.    

Conquest of a Germ (1944)   

Written by the poet Dylan Thomas during World War Two, Conquest of a Germ dramatises the recent development of antibiotics, which had proved lifesaving in peacetime and on the battlefield. A doctor arrives to begin his new role at a hospital, and while finding his feet (and checking out the nurses), decides to try the new class of drug. His confidence develops alongside the science of antibiotics and when war arrives he is fully equipped to treat wounded soldiers.  

Conquest of a Germ

Water safety campaign (1957)  

As any archivist will tell you, bilingual public health and safety campaigns are not a recent innovation. This trio of radio spots from 1957 reminds listeners in Māori and English to be careful around water.  

Surprised to hear reo Māori in mid-century broadcasting? Check out this delightful version of the Rinso jingle from 1964! We also recently published a blog about how older recordings of reo speakers challenge and educate archivists  

Dr Turbott, the radio doctor (c.1960)   

Harold Bertram Turbott was one of New Zealand’s first public health communicators, and made weekly broadcasts as ‘the Radio Doctor’ for an astonishing 41 years. Recorded sometime in the 1960s, this is a compilation of four of his short, frank talks. You can read more about the radio doctor’s interesting life and career here.  

Poster, Rachel! A Film About Teeth (1981)  

Five kids learn about dental health from the school nurse and use what they’ve learned to make a poster ‘for the primmers’. By learning alongside the kids in the film, young viewers can gather simple lessons about caring for their teeth and gums. The whole production has a wobbly feel to it that makes it charming.    

Poster, Rachel! A Film About Teeth

STD Check it Out (1987)  

Talking to teenagers about sex isn’t easy, but the HIV/AIDS crisis of the mid-1980s made it more important than ever to find ways to communicate with young people about the risks. Hence STD Check It Out, an endearing eighties time capsule that interweaves music, interviews with teens, and a two-player arcade game as a ‘cool’ analogy for sex. Don’t get zapped by a virus, or it could be ‘game over’.

STD Check It Out

Banner image: ‘Buy Health Stamps’ poster by Marmaduke Matthews, courtesy Te Papa.

Ngā Taonga newsletter

Sign up for our regular newsletter about projects we're working on and fascinating items from our collections.