Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. has donated 45 paintings to the University of Michigan Health System. The gift comes just months before Pfizer completely closes its Ann Arbor research site.

Brian Merlos
Brian Merlos
Brian Merlos

After the company closes its Ann Arbor research center next year, the paintings will be one of the last vestiges of a relationship between the company and the community.

The Museum of Art will play a role in deciding how and where the works are displayed in various University Health System buildings. No timeline has been determined yet as the Museum and Hospital system figure out the best way to “use them as an opportunity to complicate the story” behind the history of the health profession, said James Steward, director of the University’s Museum of Art.

“This is a gift honoring the history as well as the future of medicine in the state of Michigan,” Pfizer spokesman Rick Chambers said.

The paintings, created in the 1950s by Birmingham, Mich. artist Robert Thom, depict significant moments in medical history ranging from ancient Egypt to the modern era.

Dr. Jonathan Metzl, director of the University’s Program in Culture, Health, and Medicine, said the paintings are important historical artifacts because they were part of one of the first mass marketing campaigns for the pharmaceutical industry. Metzl wrote a scholarly paper on the importance of the collection last year.

“They were distributed everywhere and were seen as a public service by Parke-Davis,” he said. “They are really quite something to see in person.”

Steward said these paintings were shown to medical students to teach them what doctors did.

“To medicine, they’re a kind of Norman Rockwell,” he said.

Parke-Davis & Co., the largest pharmaceutical firm in the country at the time, commissioned the works between 1948 and 1964.

The roughly 85 paintings, of which the University now owns approximately half, consist of oil paint on masonite and are as large as 5 feet wide or tall.

The complete collection of paintings, which consists of two series – “Great Moments in Medicine” and “Great Moments in Pharmacy” – have what Metzl described as “a kind of cult” following. The works the University Health System were given come from the “Great Moments in Medicine” series.

According to Steward, the collection will need to be presented with a certain amount of context in part because the paintings show only white men in the medical profession.

“These works are so grounded in the Eisenhower era that you can’t just put them up without giving them context,” he said. “They show the white man’s history of medicine in a way that may be offensive to some people.”

But Steward was quick to point out that the collection was remarkably influential.

The collection came into Pfizer’s possession in 2000 when it acquired Warner-Lambert, which itself had acquired the paintings when it took over Parke-Davis & Co. in 1970. In the Warner-Lambert merger, Pfizer also gained ownership of its soon-to-be-closed research facility in Ann Arbor.

Steward said it was a kind gesture on Pfizer’s part to leave the paintings with the University even though many people within the Ann Arbor community feel conflicted about the company’s departure.

“It’s a nice parting gift from a company that had a prominent place here,” Steward said.

Speaking at the Detroit Economic Club in 2006, Pfizer’s former chairman and CEO Hank McKinnell said he was optimistic about the prospect of growth in the state and in the Ann Arbor area in particular.

Then Pfizer announced in January of this year that it would close its Ann Arbor research and development facility by the end of 2008.

The facility employed 2,100 people.

University officials said at the time that Pfizer, which had contributed about $12 million of the University’s roughly $800 million research budget, would not necessarily cut off all research funding when it left Ann Arbor.

In an interview yesterday, Chambers wouldn’t say whether the company planned to continue funding University research, but said the plant closing would have “no effect” on what has been a “long and fruitful relationship with the University.”

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