Art & Medicine

A number of medical schools have adopted courses to train doctors in observational skills by studying great paintings. Physicians say the practice can help them become more observant, inform them about how society viewed medical conditions in the past, and connect them with the craft of medicine at a time when their profession is increasingly shaped by technological advances.

Modern doctors may be able to look to the paintings of Old Masters like Raphael and Rembrandt for practice in assessing their patients’ general health and finding clues about their ailments.

“The School of Athens” by Raphael    Credit:  Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican
“The School of Athens” by Raphael Credit: Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican

Note the detail shown below of Heraclitus from “The School of Athens” who represent Michelangelo, according to evidence of sketches by Michelangelo’s friend Vasari, and also in poetic depictions of his health problems by Michelangelo himself. The unusual shape of his knee might be a representation of gout, an acute form of arthritis.

Detail of Heraclitus from “The School of Athens” by Raphael
Detail of Heraclitus from “The School of Athens” by Raphael
"St. Peter Healing the Sick with his Shadow" by Masaccio   Credit: Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, Italy
St. Peter Healing the Sick with his Shadow by Masaccio Credit: Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, Italy

In Masaccio’s painting one of the figures represented in the bottom left corner looks like a polio victim:

Detail from St. Peter "Healing the Sick with his Shadow" by Masaccio
Detail from St. Peter “Healing the Sick with his Shadow” by Masaccio
"The Inheritance" by Edvard Munch    Credit:  Munch Museum, Oslo
“The Inheritance” by Edvard Munch Credit: Munch Museum, Oslo

“The Inheritance” is based on an experience Edvard Munch had at a hospital in Paris.   In a waiting room he observed a tear-stained mother with a dying child on her lap.   The child was infected with syphilis, a fatal venereal disease that can be passed from parent to child. The little child’s body is depicted with an abnormally large head, thin limbs, and a red rash on its chest.   The painting provoked strong reaction in Munch’s day boldly touching on many taboos such as sex, venereal diseases and even prostitution.

"A Family Group" by Thomas Jones Barker
“A Family Group” by Thomas Jones Barker

Some observers say the girl in the painting by Thomas Jones Barker which hangs in the Taj Hotel in Boston might have had Down Syndrome…see detail below:

Detail of "A Family Group" by Thomas Jones Barker
Detail of “A Family Group” by Thomas Jones Barker
  “Portrait of a Young Man” by Bronzino  Credit:  The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY

“Portrait of a Young Man” by Bronzino Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY

Doctors seem fascinated by the Italian Renaissance painter Bronzino’s “Portrait of A Young Man” and other portraits that show subjects with one eye that is shifted dramatically to one side. A number of doctors that saw these portraits diagnosed the sitters with strabismus, or “wandering eye.”

Will studying art make a better doctor? At least one class at Harvard’s Medical School meets at the Museum of Fine Arts. Weill Medical College of Cornell University has offered a noncredit art course in collaboration with the Frick Collection in New York City for eight years, while Yale Medical School runs an art observation course for medical students that is now a required class.

Sometimes, doctors look at symptoms and review tests but forget they are looking at human beings, which can lead them to miss something important in the diagnosis. Applying the skills learned in art history reinforces the fact that, as a doctor, you have to look at a person as a whole – not just the disease.

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