heart's eye view of surgeryOpen heart surgery at the Royal Victoria Hospital, from the film shown at the Expo 67 Meditheatre, Robert Cordier’s “Miracles de la médecine moderne/Miracles in Modern Medicine.”

History prof unearths avant-garde 1960s medical film

A University of Windsor researcher has re-discovered a graphic medical film that was such a shock for viewers at the 1967 Montreal World Exhibition (Expo 67), a reported 200 people a day fainted while watching it. Medical historian Steven Palmer helped restore the movie and will co-present Miracles in Modern Medicine in Montreal this week for its first public screening since 1967.

Dr. Palmer says it is difficult for a contemporary audience to grasp the stir this movie caused, since people are now bombarded with graphic images on television and movies. In 1967 only medical trainees had visual media access to things like open-heart surgery or brain surgery, two of the close-up procedures featured in the film that was shot in Montreal hospitals in 1966.

"Even a live birth, which opens the film, is something only midwives or obstetricians would see in a training setting,” says Palmer. “People keeled over in droves when the general public finally got a look at this kind of thing, which of course just made the film that much more popular—line-ups stretched for hours, and 2.5 million visitors saw the film over the six months of Expo 67.”

While the film ran at Expo 67, he says, actors simultaneously re-enacted elements of the film with props comprised of real, state-of-the-art hospital equipment.

Palmer, Canada Research Chair in History of International Health, is currently completing a study of health and medicine at the 1967 Montreal World Exhibition. He discovered Miracles in Modern Medicine in the audio-visual collection of Library and Archives Canada.

“As a historian, you’re always trying to improve your archival strategies, always worried you might miss something big,” says Palmer. “I feel like this was a reward for going the extra mile in the archive, and of course this film is a real treasure that belongs to the people of Canada and I’m very proud to help bring it back to light.”

Montreal doctors who designed Expo 67’s health pavilion hired two New-York based artists to make the film: Robert Cordier, a theatre director, and John Palmer, a Warhol Factory cinematographer. Palmer says the filmmakers were two of the most important, creative figures in avant-garde art in the 1960s.

“This film is a major statement in medical cinema that just disappeared after the last day of Expo in late October 1967,” says Palmer. “I worked with the director Cordier, who is now 82, to restore the film and bring it back to the public.”

Cordier and Palmer will attend a major conference on the history of the hospital at McGill University, screening the 20-minute film Thursday at a special event on health and medicine at Expo 67.