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The Stories We Tell: Infectious Disease and Film History

Dr. Gordon discusses a pair of films centered on tuberculosis: one from 1912 (Falling Leaves) and the other from 1914 (The Temple of Moloch).

Published onJun 22, 2022
The Stories We Tell: Infectious Disease and Film History


Tuberculosis may seem like a disease of the past (thanks to a highly successful global campaign to eradicate it), but it is especially relevant to COVID-times in terms of the way it is spread. One of the films I want to talk about was made for entertainment. Falling Leaves, directed by one of the pioneers of early cinema, Alice Guy Blaché, is a melodrama, featuring an adorable little girl who wants to save her ailing sister from TB and in the process ends up finding her both a doctor and, as it turns out, a likely future husband. The other film, The Temple of Moloch, was made by the Edison Manufacturing Company in collaboration with the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis in an effort aligned with the agency’s annual Christmas Seal fundraising campaign. Germ theory was a relatively new way of understanding disease in 1914, and this film uses this idea to tell a story about disease’s ability to impact both the poor and the rich. Both of these films rely on disease for their stories, but one deals with it purely for the sake of drama and the other primarily with the aim of educating and improving the health of the viewing public.

Marsha Gordon, Ph.D., is professor of film studies in the English department at NC State. She is the author of Film is Like a Battleground: Sam Fuller’s War Movies (2017) and Hollywood Ambitions: Celebrity in the Movie Age (2008), and co-editor of Screening Race in American Nontheatrical Film (2019) and Learning With the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States (2012). Marsha does a monthly show, "Movies on the Radio," with NC Museum of Art film curator Laura Boyes and Frank Stasio, on 91.5/WUNC's “The State of Things.” She has also co-directed two documentaries, All the Possibilities… (2019) and Rendered Small (2017).

The Stories We Tell - Infectious Disease and Film History (Marsha Gordon)

This video was originally produced for an audience of entering first-year and transfer students at NC State University as a part of an interdisciplinary experience. It is available for noncommercial reuse under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial 4.0 License,



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