Medical Masterpieces: Perceptions paint a portrait of famous physicians

By Leah Burgin, Managing Arts Editor
Published September 17, 2012

It’s a beautiful day: The sun is shining, the sky is clear and the ocean is an even swab of calm cobalt. Everything is still and picturesque — at least, from a distance.

Focusing on the foreground, a more dynamic scene emerges. A man is being held to the ground, restrained by two others. Though a third man holds a blade to the grounded man’s head, exposing his skull and bloody flesh, this is not a violent encounter.

The blade-wielding man is a surgeon in ancient Peru performing a trephination on his patient, surrounded by his tools, his assistants, a spiritual leader and the pristine beach. This practice, also known as trephining, is a complex procedure that removes a small part of a patient’s skull to relieve cranial pressures, and throughout prehistory it was thought to have helped alleviate the symptoms of epilepsy and other afflictions.

The amount of detail in the Peruvian scene is apparent. From the elaborately embellished garb of the spiritual overseer to the precise organization of the surgeon’s equipment, it is clear that the painter dedicated time and effort to this artwork.

But wait, how is this scene so clean? Though it’s set on a beach, there are no stray grains of sand sneaking into the surgeon’s work place. Furthermore, why is such a high-risk surgery taking place on the beach instead of a designated healing area? Ancient Peruvians, the forerunners of the Inca Empire — an empire famous for its city planning, architectural achievements and a highway system that could give the Roman Empire a run for its money — would most likely have had the beginnings of a sophisticated health system.

Why would the painter have staged this scene in such a way? What was he trying to accomplish? And, perhaps more importantly, why should contemporary viewers care about a painting depicting an ancient medical practice on a South American beach?

Individuals at the University have differing opinions on the answers to these questions, interpreting the painting as art, as an important historical image and as an emotive, nostalgic item.

Great Moments

The image in question was researched, staged and painted by Robert Thom, a Birmingham, Mich. native. Titled “Trephining in Ancient Peru,” this piece was one of 45 oil paintings in the Great Moments in Medicine series Thom was commissioned to paint by Michigan-based pharmaceutical company Parke, Davis & Co. in the 1950s and ’60s.

“Trephining in Ancient Peru” currently hangs outside the South Lecture Hall in Medical Science Building II with 15 others from the series.

The Great Moments in Medicine Series and its sister series, Great Moments in Pharmacy, were undertaken as efforts in historical advertising by Parke, Davis & Co, according to Jacalyn Duffin and Alison Li in their article published for The History of Science Society, “Great Moments: Parke, Davis and Company and the Creation of Medical Art.” The set of 85 paintings were reproduced and displayed prominently in drugstore windows and doctor’s office waiting rooms during the mid-20th century.

While Duffin and Li note that several other companies commissioned historical art projects during this time, Thom’s paintings have proven themselves to be the most prolific.

Robert P. Kelch, M.D., former executive vice president for medical affairs at the University, remembers seeing Thom’s works displayed in public places growing up. As part of Kelch’s graduation ceremony from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1967, he and his classmates were presented with a book featuring Thom’s medical art.

“When I was a medical student, I was very touched by Thom’s paintings,” Kelch said. “He captured the essence of the history of medicine in a way that was very touching and meaningful to a young medical student way back when.”

In 2007, when Pfizer Inc. — the pharmaceutical giant acquired by Parke, Davis & Co. in 2000 — offered the Great Moments in Medicine series to the University of Michigan Health Systems, Kelch became instrumental in the acquisition process.

“I was just ecstatic,” he said. “I thought this was a tremendous opportunity.”

For Joel Howell, M.D., Ph.D., Victor Vaughan collegiate professor of history of medicine, the University is a logical home for the series. Not only because of the University’s historical ties to Pfizer (in that the company’s former campus has been re-imagined as the North Campus Research Complex), but also due to the status of the University’s medical school.

Howell describes the University of Michigan Medical School as an extremely important institution in the history of medicine. It was the first major university medical school to accept women, the first to own and operate a university hospital and one of the first to develop medical education into its contemporary standard.

Carole McNamara, senior curator of Western art at The University of Michigan Museum of Art, believes it’s important for such a distinguished medical school to “show who the giants were” to current medical students standing on the shoulders of those giants.

“They’re remarkable. They’re unusual,” Howell emphasized. “I don’t know of anything else quite like them.”

Interpreting the image

In the five years since the University acquired Thom’s Great Moments in Medicine, Gifts of Art Director Elaine Sims has been busy, as she described it, “finding homes” for the 45 paintings. Her two main concerns were security of the artwork — achieved by protective museum glass and a locking system that mounts art to the wall — and how to install the art throughout the medical campus in a meaningful way.

Because the series was gifted to the UMHS, it was intended to be put on display for the public within that environment. Sims described the difficulties of hanging public art, especially in a hospital setting.

“It’s always a challenge,” she said. “Because in a hospital, art has a job to do. It can’t just sit on the wall and look pretty ... You have no idea what people are experiencing as they’re going through (the halls). As many as 10,000 people a day walk by any piece of artwork and they have to understand it immediately, they can’t work at it. It’s not a moment to educate or cause discomfort.”

Working through the challenges a hospital environment can create, Sims installed 11 of Thom’s Great Moments in Medicine paintings on the walls of the UMHS, including some at the facility’s main entrance and more near the Ford Amphitheater.

Paintings from the series that might alarm hospital patients were hung elsewhere. Fifteen were placed on the second floor of the Taubman Health Sciences Library and, as Sims noted, the most iconic (and bloody) pieces were hung outside the South Lecture Hall in Medical Science Building II. This decision was made so that the medical students using this lecture hall would be able to interact with the artworks.

However, medical students aren’t the only ones to observe Thom’s Great Moments in Medicine series. Howell, who teaches History 234, “History of Medicine in the Western World from the 18th Century to the Present,” has taken undergraduates to view the paintings hanging in Medical Science Building II.

“If you want to understand the history of health care, they’re an important resource,” he explained. “They’re an important resource for stimulating discussion about the events they depict. Even more importantly, they’re a way of helping us think about how we conceptualize history.”

Howell asks his students to look critically at images like “Trephining in Ancient Peru.” He wants them to ask questions about the art: Can history be thought of as “great moments,” or is it more accurate to consider themes of underlying change? Furthermore, what biases are inherent in the artwork and how do those viewpoints impact an understanding of history?

“They’re useful for reminding us that history is always written in the present,” Howell said. “While they were intended to depict historical events as they actually happened, they were deeply embedded in the culture in which they were created. How could it be otherwise?”

Tiles in a mosaic

According to Duffin and Li, Parke, Davis & Co. spared no expense in the creation of the Great Moments in Medicine and Great Moments in Pharmacy series. Exhaustive, detail-oriented research was conducted for each painting. Specialists were consulted, sets and costumes were constructed and Thom traveled to Europe twice during the process to ensure the highest level of accuracy.

“You can’t fake history,” Thom said, cited in Duffin and Li’s article. “You have to know how people lived, what they wore, their physical surroundings, the architecture and furniture of the time, the tools of the physicians and the house-hold implements ... My responsibility is to make you forget they’re paintings and feel that you're actually there.”

From a purely artistic approach, Sims believes Thom accomplished that goal.

“They’re very evocative — the colors, the composition, the exoticness of many of them,” she said. “They just seem to draw people in.”

McNamara remembers her father, a surgeon, hanging reproductions of Thom’s work in his office. She described the paintings as having “a documentary quality to them.”

“They don’t aggregate towards a single narrative. Each is a separate moment,” she said. “As such, they’re tiles in a mosaic. Individually they may be beautiful objects or interesting objects, and depending on how the tiles in a mosaic are arranged, they may or may not configure a final narrative moment.”

But all documentaries, no matter how rich in detail and factually straightforward, are inherently biased in countless ways. Though Thom researched each painting to the most minute detail and wanted each scene to be historically accurate, Sims explained that Thom used his wife, children and neighbors to pose as a diversity of famous individuals from a multitude of cultures and eras. Duffin and Li argued that this decision could hardly be considered as factually accurate.

Thom himself was concerned with his work being timeless.

“Twenty years from now people will forget the paintings were done today,” he said, again in Duffin and Li’s article. “They must be done right. I have a tremendous power to transport the viewer. But I have the same power to mislead.”

Duffin and Li also posited that Thom, who was painting the series during the 1950s and ’60s, was biased by the social norms of his time, especially in his portrayal of women and minorities. The women are rarely active in the paintings, and seem to be included simply for aesthetic enhancement of the art.

As for Thom’s portrayal of minorities, two paintings of the Great Moments in Medicine series are seen as especially misleading: “Primitive Medicine” and “J. Marion Sims: Gynecologic Surgeon.” The first depicts a topless Native American woman being healed within a wooden structure, surrounded by members of her community. Though nothing about the painting seems “primitive,” Thom problematically titled this artwork as such.

The second depicts J. Marion Sims — known as the father of American gynecology — and two white men surrounding an African American woman perched on a table, while two African American women watch from behind a curtain. The scene is supposed to celebrate Sims’ cure of vesicovaginal fistula, a condition women experience during traumatic labor. This piece fails to reflect, however, that Sims was only able to make his discovery due to frequent human experimentation on enslaved women.

Neither of these paintings are currently on display.

As Sims explained, she is searching for “a place where people are prepared to see something like that and have a discussion.” Until then, they will remain in the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s storage facility.

For Howell, these biases and prejudices are an important angle to study and think about in terms of the history of medicine, and how that history is written.

“They depicted an image of medicine and an idea of medicine that has already passed,” Howell said. “These paintings show doctors as deities, almost — who you might want to be if you were a medical student or deeply want to be cared for by if you were a potential patient.”

“They’re a snapshot of how, at a particular time and a particular place, this was the history of medicine,” he added. “We are not at that time or place anymore, and if we were to hire someone to depict the history of medicine, it would look very different.”

Always looking back

In spite of the potentially controversial nature of some of Thom’s works, Sims maintains that the art remains extremely popular. She continues to receive requests for use of the images in publications and to tour the collection.

Perhaps this lingering affection for Robert Thom and his Great Moments in Medicine series is because, to the generation that grew up with them, they are, as Sims described, “old friends.”

“They mean different things to different people,” Kelch said. “To medical students, I hope that they give them a sense of where medicine was and how far we’ve come. And also, how little we know today. There’s so much more to learn. For the public, I hope it gives them a sense of the tremendous change that has occurred.”

“We have a way of repeating ourselves,” he added. “Hopefully by learning about history this way and studying the past, we can be more modest, more humble and better physicians.”