A New Home for Famous Medical History Paintings

Article ID: 535773

Released: 29-Nov-2007 1:20 PM EST

Source Newsroom: University of Michigan Health System

  • Credit: Painting by Robert A. Thom, digital image provided by University of Michigan

    This image from the medical history series by Robert A. Thom is titled: Jenner: Smallpox is Stemmed. Vaccination against deadly infectious diseases was a major goal of 20th century pharmaceutical companies, and the search for a polio vaccine was heating up at the time Thom painted his series. This painting depicts the use of the first Western vaccine: the cowpox vaccine to protect against smallpox. Edward Jenner, a rural English doctor, is shown injecting his first patient, James Phipps, in 1796, using fluid obtained from scratches on the hand of dairymaid Sarah Nelmes, standing behind him. His observation that dairymaids seemed to gain immunity to smallpox from their exposure to cowpox led to Jenner's experiments and the eventual widespread adoption of smallpox vaccination. In 1980, the disease of smallpox was declared eradicated from the world.

  • Credit: Painting by Robert A. Thom, digital image provided by University of Michigan

    This image from the medical history series painted by Robert A. Thom is titled: Leeuwenhoek and the "Little Animals." With a bolt of fabric representing his profession as a drapery maker sitting beside him, Antonie von Leeuwenhoek is shown exploring the microscopic world through handmade lenses. The 17th-century Dutch scientist was the first to report seeing what we now know as protozoa and bacteria (which he called "animacules"), and to document blood flow in small vessels called capillaries. He is considered a forefather of modern microbiology, and a key contributor to the development of the microscope, having ground hundreds of lenses that were mounted in metal frames such as the one he holds in the painting.

  • Credit: Painting by Robert A. Thom, digital image provided by University of Michigan

    This image from the medical history series painted by Robert A. Thom is titled: Hippocrates: Medicine Becomes a Science. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates of Cos, born around 460 B.C.E., is considered a founding father of medicine, and a key figure in medicine's development as a profession and a systemic science separate from others. He is the namesake for the Hippocratic Oath, sworn by new physicians for centuries, and is considered a paragon of ancient physicians. This painting illustrates him in both a metaphorically and literally fatherly role, reassuring the worried mother of a boy who has fallen ill, while reassuring the boy with a hand on his shoulder and simultaneously feeling the "hypochondrium", or region near the spleen just below the ribs, where the ancient Greeks believed many illnesses began.

  • Credit: Painting by Robert A. Thom, digital image provided by University of Michigan

    This image from the medical history series painted by Robert A. Thom is titled: Galen: Influence for 45 generations Galen of Pergamum was a prominent Greek physician, born in AD 129, who explored human and animal anatomy, developed surgical techniques, and put forth a rational systematic approach to medicine that dominated Western medicine, and influenced Islamic medicine, for centuries. While living in Rome, he was a physician to Emperor Marcus Aurelius. This image shows him "cupping" a young patient, using heated cups to draw blood to the surface as a preparation for blood-letting, which Galen advocated for many ills.

  • Credit: Painting by Robert A. Thom, digital image provided by University of Michigan

    This image from the medical history series painted by Robert A. Thom is titled: Pasteur: The Chemist Who Transformed Medicine. The famous 19th century French chemist and biologist, Louis Pasteur, is shown gazing at a swan-necked flask - the specially crafted glass container that he used to debunk the theory that microbes appear by "spontaneous generation", and to help demonstrate that they are instead produced from other microbes. His wife Marie watches him. On the table is a replica of an experiment by an Italian scientist who showed that microbes can travel through the air and be killed by boiling. Pasteur's discoveries helped develop the "germ theory" of disease and the process of pasteurization that is used to this day.

Newswise — U-M Health System will work with U-M Museum of Art to display selected works by Michigan painter Robert Thom, originally painted for Parke-Davis

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — More than 50 years ago, a Michigan-based pharmaceutical company commissioned a Michigan painter to depict dozens of great moments in medical history, from ancient Egypt to the United States in the 20th century.

Within a few years, the entire nation knew the paintings by Robert A. Thom. Reproductions appeared in magazines and doctors' offices, and a book of them was given to thousands of new physicians. With a Norman Rockwell-style realism, the works epitomized the optimism of the time in which they were painted, and the nation's faith in post-World War II medical and scientific triumphs.

Now, 45 of those paintings are coming home to Michigan, to an institution that will share them with the public as never before.

The University of Michigan has received Thom's medical history paintings as a gift from their most recent owner, Pfizer Inc. A committee from the U-M Health System and U-M Museum of Art is now planning to exhibit many of them in public spaces across the U-M medical campus, with financial help from art-loving donors.

"These works hold both historical and cultural significance for the entire field of medicine, and special significance for our institution because of the artist's ties to our state," says Robert Kelch, M.D., U-M executive vice president for medical affairs and CEO of UMHS. "In fact, when I graduated from the U-M Medical School, each of us received a book of reproductions of these very paintings, which I've kept to this day. We're very grateful and honored that Pfizer has chosen us to preserve these paintings, and to share them with our faculty, staff, students, patients and visitors."

James Steward, director of UMMA, adds, "These paintings are a remarkable product of their time, but are no less significant for this. They speak powerfully to how all art is shaped by its historical context, and do so in ways that offer tremendous interest for viewers and scholars in the twenty-first century."

A second gift to U-M, from Al and Colette Kessel, will fund the hanging of the paintings around the U-M medical campus. The Kessels share Dr. Kelch's love of art, and wanted to help realize his goal of making the Thom paintings available to the public.

The 45 works, all oil on masonite, range in size up to five feet wide or tall. Thom researched each one meticulously before painting, and traveled to many of the sites depicted. He aimed to show scientific and cultural details as accurately as possible, according to the historical and anthropological knowledge of his day. It is estimated that Thom traveled nearly 250,000 miles through North America and Europe during his research for the series, studying artifacts and locations intently.

Thom's subjects range from the ancient Greek temples of Asclepius, the demigod of medicine, to the first use of a smallpox vaccine by Edward Jenner, to the founding of the American Medical Association, and the discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Roentgen.

His commission came from Parke-Davis & Co., which at the time was the largest pharmaceutical firm in the country and had its research headquarters in Ann Arbor near U-M. Pfizer acquired the paintings in 2000 as part of its acquisition of Warner-Lambert, which had acquired Parke-Davis in 1970.

The series was formally titled A History of Medicine in Pictures, and many of the paintings were published as individual plates in magazines, as lithographs, and in book form as Great Moments in Medicine, with text by George Bender describing the story behind each painting. A full-length movie explored the "story behind the story" of the paintings.

The book and prints became a kind of "Rosetta stone" for generations of doctors, and were well known among everyday Americans too. The oil paintings toured the U.S. and Canada, appearing in Parke-Davis-sponsored shows at medical conferences and other events.

Some of the Thom medical history paintings have recently been exhibited in Michigan as part of larger installations, including 15 that were displayed in 2000 at UMMA in the exhibition Seeing is Healing? The Visual Arts of Medicine in honor of the U-M Medical School's 150th anniversary. Three were included in a 2003 exhibit at the Birmingham Historical Museum, in Birmingham, Mich., near where Thom lived at the time of the original commission. But now that all the medical paintings are part of U-M's collections, they can be exhibited in larger numbers. Specific plans for their display within U-M hospitals, clinical and research buildings will be announced at a later date.

Robert Thom was born in 1915 in Grand Rapids, Mich., and spent much of his adult life in metropolitan Detroit. He and his wife died in 1979 in a car accident in Alma, Mich., while visiting the state from their new home in Dallas.

His style of painting was based in the same American realist and pictorial tradition as Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth. Though not as well known as those artists, Thom was commissioned often, including a History of Michigan series for Michigan Bell Telephone. The medicine series followed immediately on the heels of Thom's first Parke-Davis commission, of a series of 40 paintings illustrating the history of pharmacy that Pfizer recently gave to the American Pharmacists Association Foundation.

Each of his medical history works is a kind of "still life of discovery" , capturing a significant occasion and depicting either a famous medical scientist in action or a scene of healing from a particular time and place. Among the subjects are Andreas Vesalius demonstrating human anatomy, Ignaz Semmelweis convincing doctors to wash their hands before delivering babies, Louis Pasteur examining his famous swan-necked flask, and Walter Reed treating yellow fever in a battlefield tent.

This quest for historical accuracy in paintings that served as pharmaceutical company advertisements was a reflection of Thom's times, and holds lessons for today, says a U-M Medical School psychiatrist and historian who has written two papers on the paintings and co-curated the 2000 exhibition.

"The Thom paintings represent an important chapter in American pharmaceutical advertising," says Jonathan Metzl, M.D., Ph.D., director of the U-M Program in Culture, Health, and Medicine. "The images do not mention specific medications by name, but instead seek to create a specific aura by tying the company's name to depictions of great medical advances, Parke-Davis sought to enhance the image of the pharmaceutical industry at a time when it was much less powerful than it is today."

Metzl, an expert on the history of pharmaceutical company advertising, published articles on the Thom paintings in Academic Medicine in 2004, and in Literature and Medicine in Fall, 2006, together with Joel Howell, M.D., Ph.D., director of the U-M Program in Society and Medicine. Metzl accessed Thom's research notes for both series of paintings, and spoke extensively with surviving family members including Thom's son.


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