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Medicine and Art
  1. A Borsay

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    Edited by A E H Emery, M L H Emery. Royal Society of Medicine Press, 2003, (hbk), pp 112 + x. ISBN 1853155012

    Alan and Marcia Emery have compiled a captivating collection of 53 colour plates of health care practitioners and their patients, from the third century BC to the beginning of the current millennium. Each plate is reproduced to a high standard with a facing page of text. There is also an appendix detailing “a selection of medical conditions depicted in paintings”. The editors have been imaginative in their choice of images. Of course, old favourites—like The Doctor (c 1891) by Sir Luke Fildes and The Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale Receiving the Wounded at Scutari (1857) by Jerry Barrett—are included. But examples of Eastern art temper the Western dominance, and although most of the illustrations are of paintings, early medicine is represented in sculpture, pottery, and coins.

    The textual entries that accompany the plates are of variable length and quality. Some offer an interpretation of the visual effects. So with Sentence of Death (1908) by John Collier we are told that the patient receiving bad news “sits uncomfortably, staring ahead, isolated in his grief. He sees no future. His facial pallor and demeanour contrast starkly with those of the doctor” (p 76). On other occasions, there are references to the artistic background. Francisco Oller y Cestero’s painting of The Student (c 1860s), for instance, is described as “interesting” because of the influence of both the “French realists” and the “emerging Impressionists” (p 56), and Ernest Board’s study of Laënnec Listening to the Chest of a Patient (c 1910) is identified as one of a series of paintings of the same subject. Furthermore, the relationship between art and society is also recognised, though not explored in any depth. Edward Hopper’s Drug Store (1927) is thus read as a statement of “the stark loneliness of modern city life (p 86), whilst Sergei Chepik is quoted defining his portrait of The Madhouse (1987) as “an allegorical representation of Soviet society, walled in by its own lies, paranoia and despair” (p 100).

    In addition to being seen as sociocultural artefacts, the works are also pretexts for brief asides about the historical development of health care and its contemporary practice. To Louis-Léopold Boilly’s painting of a Vaccination (1807) is attached the story of Edward Jenner. High infant mortality rates are mentioned in connection with Doubtful Hope (1875) by Frank Holl, in which an anxious mother with baby is shown waiting for a prescription. And women’s belated entry into medicine is celebrated in Children’s Doctor (1949) by Andrew Wyeth, a study of Dr Margaret Handy who “graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1916 … and was one of the first to specialise in paediatrics” (p 92).

    For readers of Medical Humanities, the relevance of art to contemporary health care may be of special interest. Engaging in art is itself a restorative process as Stanley Spencer appreciated when he crafted Bed Making (1932) and the other panels at the Sandham Memorial Chapel, Berkshire. A member of the Royal Army Medical Corps during the first world war (1914–18), he insisted that the murals “redeemed” his experience, enabling him to “recover my lost self” (p 82). The editors also, however, deduce lessons from their collection. Therefore, the nineteenth century Medical Painting from Central Tibet, which captures the holism of Buddhist practice, is used to highlight the disappointments of “modern scientifically based medicine” (p 6) and to promote the advantages of cooperation between conventional and complementary practitioners. Conversely, Louise Riley’s embroidery of The Patient and Researcher (2001) sought “to describe the physical aspect of the removal of organs and blood samples from the patient, and their redirection to a laboratory where a researcher would experiment, attempting to ascertain a diagnosis or cure—putting the puzzle pieces back together”. The dehumanisation that such medical research may bring is pointed up, and emphasis given to the “care and compassion” (p 106) expressed in Norman Rockwell Visits a Family Doctor (1947) and his earlier portrait, Doctor and Doll (1929), where the physician wins the confidence of a young patient by listening to her doll’s chest.

    The ideal that emerges from this critique of modern medicine is essentially a paternalistic one. Pictures of patients are thin on the ground and when they do appear it is often as passive objects of the medical gaze. Therefore, no comment is made about the plight of the patient put on public display in paintings such as Doctor Teaching on a Sick Child Before an Audience of Doctors and Students, New York Polyclinic School of Medicine (1891) by Irving R Wiles. Health care practitioners other than doctors are also neglected. Their subordination is evident in Science and Charity (1897) by Pablo Picasso where the doctor’s “skill and knowledge” (p 72) is exhibited in taking the pulse, whilst the nun’s caring role is manifest in attending to the patient’s material needs. In The Compassion of the Intensive Care Sister (1989) by Roy Calne, on the other hand, the unobtrusiveness of the medical technology accentuates the responsibilities of the nurse.

    The field of medicine and art has recently seen the publication of several scholarly studies, among them Fiona Haslam’s From Hogarth to Rowlandson: Medicine in Art in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1996) and Ludmilla Jordanova’s Defining Features: Scientific and Medical Portraits, 1660–2000 (London: Reaktion in association with the National Portrait Gallery, 2000). The contents of the Clement C Fry Collection at the Yale University Medical Library have also been listed by Susan Wheeler in Five Hundred Years of Medicine in Art: An Illustrated Catalogue of Prints and Drawings (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), and the visual resources of the National Library of Medicine in the USA are available online (

    Medicine in Art cannot match the range or weight of these projects. In particular, the short introduction of just one page means that the plates lack being placed in a proper context in the history and theory of art, which would acknowledge their ability to form as well as “reflect … the role of the physician in society” (p ix). Nevertheless, as a popular, accessible introduction, the book is a treasure trove for health care practitioners and the general public alike.