Coughs, Sneezes, and Jet-Propelled Germs: Two Public Service Films by Richard Massingham (1945)

At a time when the spread of disease is on everyone’s mind and governments the world over seek to educate the public in how to help contain the Coronavirus through hand-washing PSAs of all kinds, we thought it a good opportunity to highlight two short, memorable, and mercifully amusing public service films made in 1945 and 1948 respectively. Whereas PSAs of today mostly come in our social-media feeds and through television adverts, these informational “trailers” were shown before or in between main features at the local cinema, informing the public about everything from the importance of wartime rationing to the post-war workings of the new National Health System.

The first film featured here, Coughs and Sneezes from 1945, begins with a comic montage of practical jokes. “You may have met a few people who like doing this sort of thing,” the narrator says, as we watch a series of people be bonked on the head, tripped, or knocked head over heels; “they’re a nuisance, I agree — but pretty harmless.” The scene then turns to another kind of nuisance, which isn’t harmless at all: a man who sneezes without covering his mouth. This danger to society is promptly hauled into a room for instruction in proper use of his handkerchief and, in a follow-up film, Don’t Spread Germs (Jet-Propelled Germs) from 1948, further instructed in how to properly clean his handkerchief — in a bowl of disinfectant separate from the family wash.

The director, and star, of both these films is Richard Massingham (1898–1953), a former Senior Medical Officer at the London Fever Hospital (and hypochondriac) who showed a largely self-taught talent for filmmaking as early as 1933, when he made a movie about the hospital where he worked. Other movies — about a dreadful trip to the dentist, among other subjects — followed. He rose to prominence during the war years with government-backed films such as The Five-Inch Bather (1942), which joyfully supported the war department’s recommendation to bathe in no more than five inches of water with images of elephants, kittens, and Massingham himself, bathing with childlike glee. After the war, too, he went on promoting good hygiene and good sense, not only in Jet-Propelled Germs but in the wonderfully surrealistic Watch Your Meters (1947).

As a hypochondriac as well as a doctor, Massingham was obviously passionate about subjects that promoted public health. So, in honor of his life and work, remember: “coughs and sneezes spread diseases!” Be well, and take care!

(See a series of GIFs made from the Coughs and Sneezes film here.)