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Cinema under the microscope

How scientists have become movie makers

A series of 20th century seminal scientific films have been discovered in storage in laboratories at King’s College London and have been archived by the Wellcome Library, say King’s researchers writing in the Journal of Cell Science (JCS).  

These early films made with microscopes not only captured important scientific data, but were also popular with the public and leading figures like British PM Ramsay MacDonald, who held a private film viewing at 10 Downing Street in 1933. 

In the JCS Essay, King’s cell biologists Brian Stramer and Graham Dunn chart the history of movie making in the laboratory, including the pioneers of ‘cinema photomicrography’ as it was originally known in the early 20th century. 

The first use of motion picture photography was not for entertainment but for experimental purposes. In 1872, Eadweard Muybridge used a series of cameras with automatic shutters to document the stages of a horse’s trot. This ‘movie’ allowed him visualize events that were difficult to see with the naked eye, revealing that all four hoofs were for a moment off the ground while trotting. 

Soon after the advent of motion picture cameras around the turn of the century, cinematographers turned their cameras on microscopic specimens. In 1891, Etienne Jules Marey filmed red blood cells coursing through a capillary. The first microscopic movie of a living organism was of cheese mites in 1903. In 1909, Jean Comandon filmed the syphilis bacteria at the Pasteur Institute in Paris – he developed the technique as part of his doctoral thesis and later went to work for the French film company Pathe Freres.  In the late 1920s and early 1930s, embryologist Warren Lewis began experimenting with movies and published a seminal time-lapse study of developing rabbit eggs. 

Ronald Canti, a pathologist who worked at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, and later at the Strangeways Research Laboratory, was a very early adopter of filming as an experimental tool. His first microscope and camera apparatus were assembled by him in his own home. His obituary in Nature in 1936 said this apparatus allowed him to generate a ‘‘world-famous cinema photomicrographic study’’ which was ‘‘shown in all continents of the world’’.

The Wellcome Library has digitized a series of Canti’s movies entitled ‘The Cultivation of Living Tissue’ sponsored by the British Empire Cancer Campaign, a predecessor of Cancer Research UK. The three films represent some of the earliest movies of cultured cells. They are now available to view online via the Wellcome Library’s multimedia player.

The first of the film series shows different types of cells moving around. While time-lapse movies are common today, this mode of filming would have been unknown in Canti’s time. To highlight the passage of time to his lay audience, Canti came up with an ingenious idea to simultaneously film an analogue clock, which he displayed on the upper corner of the film. This allowed the audience to see the minute hand frantically spinning around as the cells migrated, which highlighted just how slow these cellular movements were.

Canti was best known for studying the effects of radiation on cells and, as highlighted in his Nature obituary, his photomicrographs helped convince ‘‘more people of the efficacy of the radiation treatment of cancer than any other form of publication’’. In his third film, we see the movement of normal and cancer cells before and after the addition of radium. 

These films were widely displayed throughout the world, from a Friday evening discourse at the Royal Institution to university students at an American college in Ohio. UK Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald hosted a private film showing at No. 10 Downing Street on 21 February 1933.

The more recent of the films digitized by the Wellcome Library represent experiments performed in the 1950s and 1960s. Michael Abercrombie, another pioneering cinemicroscopist from Strangeways Research Laboratory, spent his career studying the mechanisms behind cell movement, and was one of the first to use cinemicroscopy as a tool to extract statistically testable parameters such as the speed at which cells migrate. 

Dr Brian Stramer, Randall Division of Cell & Molecular Biophysics at King’s College London, says: “Most cell biologists these days are also cinematographers. As with any movie production, we are in charge of the technical aspects of filming. We choose the type of microscope and lens and decide on the best lighting for our ‘actors’. However, there is no director in these productions; the cells are responsible for their own performance and we are only there to help them tell their story.

“With an array of tools at our disposal, from laser scanning confocal microscopes to super-resolution techniques, we can now reveal the inner world of cells. We’ve come a long way since we first measured the speed of a cell. As a direct result of these microscopic movies, great advances have been and will continue to be made.”

Notes to editors

For more information, please contact Jenny Gimpel, PR Manager (Health) in the King’s College London Press Office on 0207 848 4334 or

‘Cells on film – the past and future of cinemicroscopy’ by Brian Stramer and Graham Dunn is published in the Journal of Cell Science on Friday 2 January 2015 and can be accessed here.

More information on the films related to this paper can be found on the Wellcome Library blog

‘The Cultivation of Living Tissue’ can be viewed via the Wellcome Library’s multimedia player here.

A report of the private viewing of Dr Canti’s film at 10 Downing Street in 1933 can be found here

About King’s College London (

King's College London is one of the top 20 universities in the world (2014/15 QS World University Rankings) and the fourth oldest in England. It is The Sunday Times 'Best University for Graduate Employment 2012/13'. King's has nearly 26,000 students (of whom more than 10,600 are graduate students) from some 140 countries worldwide, and more than 7,000 staff. The College is in the second phase of a £1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate.

For more information, please visit King’s in Brief.

About Wellcome Library (

The Wellcome Library is one of the world's major resources for the study of medical history. It houses 2.5 million items of extraordinary range and diversity and has a growing collection of material relating to contemporary medicine and biomedical science in society. The Library’s digitisation programme will make a substantial proportion of its holdings freely available on the web. The Library is situated within Wellcome Collection and is part of the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health.

Wellcome Library’s collection of moving images and sound covers all aspects of medicine, health and welfare throughout the 20th century and beyond and is one of the largest collections of its kind. It can be searched online here