Monthly Archives: November 2016

Reproduction on Film

CHOTS (Centre for the History of the Sciences) and CiSOR joined forces in October to put on the Canterbury Festival’s only 18-rated event.  The event was curated by Filippo Guizetti, one of our Science Communication masters students, who invited Dr Jesse Olszynko-Gryn from the University of Cambridge to show some of the medical films he has been studying as part of his research project Gestation to Reproduction.

What we saw was both visually and scientifically extraordinary.

Movie-makers began experimenting with special effects as soon as cameras were invented, and one result of this was the pioneering use of stop-motion to capture biological-time events.  We began with a 1924 down-the-microscope film of a developing axolotl, from single cell to early embryo.  Amphibians were a popular choice for early developmental biology, and this film, Gestation of the Ovum, was at the cutting edge of research as well as of visualisation – likely shown only to university students.  In a nice visual continuity (as Geraldine Travers astutely pointed out), the film finished with a bean-shaped embryo – the exact same shape as the seed whose growth formed the topic of the next speeded-motion epic, Peas and Cues (1930).  This film was for popular consumption, part of the first wave of natural history film making.  In it, the swirling, curling plants grew like Jugendstil illustrations; they flowered, fruited and died – and in a Groundhog Day moment, began again.

The same theme, namely the endless cycle of life and death, framed a 1944 film about the life of cats.  Presenting possibly the first ever LOLcats, this film, made in a New York apartment, featured intimate footage, lovingly cut to create a warm and anthropomorphic narrative about feline parenthood.  Reproduction began with a lascivious lick shared between ‘he’ and ‘she’ – and no sooner were the kittens scrambling about the floor, than it began again.

More responsible parenthood was on offer in Childbirth as an Athletic Feat (1939) which advised women on how to prepare for labour with a series of exercises demonstrated by an infuriatingly elegant ballerina, notwithstanding her advanced stage of pregnancy.  This regimented (though well intentioned) vision of human reproduction was contrasted by the final film of the evening, Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving (1959) chronicling the labour of his then-wife, Jane Wodening.  This was the least ‘scientific’ film we saw; it aspired to be nothing but art.  The camera lingered over Wodening’s body made strange by pregnancy, and the unflinching shots of her pelvic area as the baby emerges are challenging for some to watch without squeamishness.  Towards the end of the film, we realise that some of the camerawork has been done by Wodening herself; a powerful feminist gesture.  Her body was at once as automatic as the twirling, geotropic peas, and as human as a painting by Caravaggio.  A true meeting of science and art.


The whole event was enhanced by the wonderful improvisations of the ensemble Bog Bodies.  Rather than accompanying the films, like a pianist in a Chaplin film, they created a parallel work of art that was a meditation on the science and the humanity that was on show.

Here is a list of what we watched, and where you can find it online:

  1. Gestation of the Ovum (Friedrich Kopsch, Germany, 1924), 9 min. SILENT.
  2. Peas and Cues (Mary Field, 1930), 9 min. SOUND.
  3. Childbirth as an Athletic Feat (Kathleen Vaughan, UK, 1939), 8 min. SILENT.
  4. The Private Life of a Cat (Alexander Hammid, US, 1944), 22 min. SILENT.
  5. Growing Girls (Winifred Holmes, UK, 1949), 12 min. SOUND.
  6. Window Water Baby Moving (Stan Brakhage, US, 1959), 12 min. SILENT.

Sex, lives and conspiracy

A commentary on the latest CISoR cross-disciplinary event held on 19/10/16 by Phil Ward, Deputy Director of Research Services

Whilst funders are increasingly pushing for interdisciplinary research, actually making it happen is a tough challenge. At the University of Kent we were established to break down the barriers between disciplines – to be ‘a community where different disciplines mix up,’ to quote the first Vice Chancellor, Geoffrey Templeman. I’ve written in the past about the difficulty of reaching ‘beyond the safety of the silo’, and what we’ve done to try and help the process, such as through sandpits.

Ultimately though it is up to the academics to reach across the disciplinary boundaries, to look at what others are doing, and to recognise the ways in which their work can inform, broaden and deepen your own – and vice versa. I’ve followed very closely how Prof Darren Griffin (Biosciences) and Prof Sally Sheldon (KLS) have established the CISoR and recently went, for the first time, to one of their events. Entitled ‘Sex, Lives and Conspiracy,’ it brought together colleagues from across the University, and was an opportunity to learn about a very diverse range of research going on in all three faculties.

I came to the event late: I was showing visitors from the British Academy around the campus, and thought that they would be interested in eavesdropping on this conversation. And how: you could see their eyes light up at fizzing, crackling mix of papers that were presented, from the creative clash of Dorothy Lehane working with colleagues in biomedical science and crafting poetic responses to their life and work, to the psychological determinants of conspiracy theorists, to the ‘biography’ of the 1967 Abortion Act.

Altogether there were eleven speakers, and between them they represented a huge variety of research. Interestingly, for a centre led by a Professor of Genetics, there was less ‘hard science’, and more explorations of the effects that such science had had on society and culture. Thus, for instance, Jan McVarish explored questions of evidence and trust in the fertility sector, and the implications for concepts of ‘informed consent.’ Becki Gould, who works in the London Women’s Clinic, relayed stories of patients who were undergoing a revolutionary new IVF technique. Extending an exploratory thread further, David Ayers, from the School of English, gave a fascinating insight into the way that intimacy and birth control were represented in the novels and newspapers of the first half of the twentieth century.

On the face of it, there was little binding these threads together, and it would be a tough quiz night question that tried to link Shakespeare and grammar schools, impact bias and behavioural genetics. However, I was impressed by the recurring issues. and the ways in which they (reproduction, conspiracy and so forth) were dealt with by different academic disciplines.

There was an opportunity to explore these further in the coffee break, and in the drinks reception that followed. And that, ultimately, was key to the success of the day: it got people talking, informally, animatedly, about the common threads that weaved through the diverse research landscape. Often it is at the edge of disciplines where the discoveries happen, in the hinterland where perspectives change and the unexpected is more likely to be encountered; where nothing is taken for granted. Darren suggested that further workshops and symposia might use some of these themes, some of these threads, to explore the common landscape further. In so doing he is returning the University to its interdisciplinary roots, and through these ensuring its future development, strength and success.