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Published in CenterView on October 22, 2012
Misti Thornton, library associate, looks through the Hardy tapes.
Misti Thornton, library associate, looks through the Hardy tapes.

UMMC archivists seek to preserve film collection of Hardy’s landmark surgeries

By Bruce Coleman

Dr. James D. Hardy, professor and chairman of surgery at the University of Mississippi Medical Center from 1955-87, used the technology of his day to document some of the most important surgeries in UMMC’s history.

Machado displays a strip from Film NO. 97.
Machado displays a strip from Film NO. 97.

The 16 mm films used to record the late-1950s-to-mid-1960s procedures were edited – literally spliced by hand and glued back together – possibly for use as teaching tools in the classroom. Such care had been taken to produce the films that one could only conclude they were intended as precious gifts for medical education’s posterity.

Unfortunately, Hardy’s description of the films’ contents was not as meticulous: Titles hand-written in ink at the beginning and at the end of each film remain the only clues. So what medical marvels may be contained in Hardy’s collection of close to 200 films won’t be known until they are viewed – some for the first time in several decades.

As the 50th anniversary of Hardy’s landmark lung transplant approaches, Medical Center archivists sought to discover what had been captured by cameras in Hardy’s surgical suite.
What they found was troubling.

The fragile films had been rolled onto metal reels, many of them rusted over time. The films were housed in canisters of varying degrees of corrosion. Some lay jumbled in dusty cardboard boxes; others were stacked haphazardly in filing cabinets.

Unless carefully restored, these films that could vividly bring to life some of the most groundbreaking surgical procedures known to man – in living color, no less – risk being lost to antiquity.

Connie Machado remembers the first time she saw the films.

“We started looking at them and noticed that some were in really bad shape,” said Machado, associate professor of academic information services in the Rowland Medical Library. “When we opened the can, it smelled like vinegar, which is a sign of deterioration. Many of the films are over 50 years old and they degrade, much like photographs do.”

Heat, storage and the ravages of time can cause 16 mm film to shrink. The spindles on both edges of Hardy’s films no longer fit the teeth of automated projectors. Mix in the crudity of the materials used to make spliced edits, and the result is all but useless for modern projectors.
“We have nothing to view the films with, and the splices have deteriorated,” Machado said. “If we don’t preserve them, we will lose many of them.

“This (Hardy’s work) was a landmark in the history of Mississippi and it needs to be preserved, or this material will no longer be here.”

Working with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, who had the necessary equipment to evaluate two of Hardy’s films, they discovered that Film No. 97, labeled “Transplantation of Organs (Heart Out),” bore further scrutiny.

The film showed clips from two of Hardy’s 1963 landmark surgeries: the first human lung transplantation in history and the transplant of a human kidney into a female patient. The footage, which contains more than 100 splices, includes graphics, X-rays and newspaper clippings, and also shows one of the actual patients in recovery. 

didlakeDr. Ralph Didlake, professor of surgery and medicine and director of the UMMC Center for Bioethics, said the preservation of the film is vital for a number of reasons.

“Obviously, Dr. Hardy’s work is an important part of our institutional history and should be preserved, simply because it is the right thing to do,” Didlake said. “The film itself is an important artifact in medical education and represents UMMC’s early and significant commitment to using film as a teaching tool.

“As a Hardy-trained surgeon, this film project holds an emotional component. Those of us who passed through the flame of his training program have a special connection to this preservation effort.”

Machado said Film No. 97 is just a representative sample of Hardy’s entire 16 mm collection.
“A lot of them are spliced from other films and some of them don’t have titles or numbers,” she said. “We’re trying to inventory what we have, because if we don’t take steps to restore this material, it will be lost.”

Unfortunately, Film No. 97 does not contain footage from Hardy’s 1964 transplant of a chimpanzee heart into the chest of a dying man – an accomplishment so historic in the annals of medical history that, should it exist somewhere among the reels, would doubtlessly be considered the “holy grail” of Hardy’s film collection.

The Mississippi Department of Archives and History’s evaluation of Film No. 97 was so compelling that Machado submitted a description of the film to the Basic Preservation Grants Committee of the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) in San Francisco for its 2012 summer round of basic preservation grants. The estimated cost to restore the film – a full 575 feet – was $5,200.

“It’s an expensive process,” Machado said. “It has to be fully cleaned and then repaired. We would get a digital Betacam copy and a DVD copy. 

“The grant is federally subsidized, so one requirement is to share the material with a  public audience.”

Which sets up sort of a “Catch-22” situation for the restoration of Hardy’s remaining films. For them to be viewed publicly, the films must meet stringent Health Information Portability and Accountability Act requirements for the protection of any depicted individuals’ health-care records. In essence, the films must be viewed to determine HIPAA compliance before they can be made available to the public. But to safely view the films without damaging them, they first must be restored.

“Until we see them, we won’t know what permissions are needed,” said Machado, whose submission represents the Medical Center’s first application for an NFPF grant.     

On Sept. 20, Machado received a letter from the NFPF notifying her that the grant application had been accepted and she would receive the funds to proceed with plans to restore Film No. 97. She described her response in one word: “gratifying.”

“It’s just exciting to know that we’re taking steps to pursue the preservation of these films,” she said. “We want this to be a campus effort, to get everyone involved in helping to restore these films and making this material available to the public within HIPAA guidelines.

“We’re just trying to understand exactly what we have (in the collection). Dr. Hardy kept everything; it’s just a matter of identifying the film. It’s really an exciting project.”

“The RML preservation efforts are important both statewide and regionally because the library personnel will develop infrastructure and gain expertise as medical archivists,” Didlake said. “Clearly, (this is) another resource UMMC can provide to the community.”

The quest to uncover film of Hardy’s heart transplant, as well as to determine what other jewels may be hidden among the archives, has fueled Machado’s effort to have more – if not all – of Hardy’s films restored one day.

“Hopefully now that we can do this one, we can get funding to restore more,” Machado said. “I think it will be great for Mississippi, and it’s an important part of the institution that needs to
be preserved.”