Our understanding of cancer has come a great ways over the past few decades, and some of the progress can be traced back to the 1950’s film Challenge: Science Against Cancer, explained David Cantor, PhD, researcher at the Instituto de Desarrollo Económico y Social, Buenos Aires Argentina, adjunct professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland, College Park, in a July 2022 essay for the National Library of Medicine.

Challenge: Science Against Cancer was commissioned by National Cancer Institute and the Canadian Department of National Health and Welfare to entice new scientist recruits to the world of cancer research. Cantor explained that the filmmakers used a variety of symbols in animation and live-action sequences “not to capture the mess of phenomena that paraded before a camera but to use the phenomena to reach a more abstract or generalizable reality.

“Such symbols represent the patient as respectful, obedient, and subject to science; the scientist as a hero, explorer, and ordinary man; the cell as a universe or outer space that evoked the wonder of the miniscule biological world and the huge scale of the cancer problem; and, in the case of the rain, the dangers of cancer in the environment,” Cantor said.

The film became a part of an educational package and used in classrooms, Canton said, “for perhaps a decade” before newer films and agendas were introduced. Even as learning materials on cancer evolved, Challenge: Science Against Cancer serves as an educational glance into the history of cancer and how far treatment has come.

“The film tells us much about the postwar expansion of cancer research: the shortfall in scientists in the 1940s and the important, if undocumented, roles of information officers and filmmakers in the promotion of cancer research after World War II,” Canton said. “It is a story of how two sponsors concerned about the shortage of scientists in cancer research came to collaborate to produce a recruitment film, how filmmakers sought to transform these concerns into something that would work as a film, and how advocates of the film within both sponsoring agencies sought to ensure its success as an educational and recruitment tool through a multimedia propaganda campaign.”

“It is, finally, also a story of how representations of the scientist, the patient, the body and cell, and the work of science—malleable entities, whose meanings changed over time and between different stakeholders—were created and transformed.”