The Art of Medicine

From the Dean

Dean's letter to readers

Art historians tell us of the strong connections between painters and physicians. The poet and physician John Keats, for example, had a close, creative relationship with the English portrait painter Joseph Severn, while Paul-Ferdinand Gachet was a physician to Vincent Van Gogh and the subject of his patient’s now-famous painting.

Physicians themselves have often taken up the brush. The Russian physician Leonid Pasternak was a well-known portraitist, and father to novelist Boris; and Carl Gustav Carus—friend of Goethe, one-time physician to a king of Saxony, and author of Psyche, a book many believe influenced Carl Jung—was a painter.

Carus was known for the scientific precision of his landscapes. Two of the people we feature in this issue of Harvard Medicine, an issue devoted to the art of medicine, are also known for their meticulous, empirical approach to their compositions. Warren and Lucia Prosperi have produced dozens of portraits of notable HMS clinicians and researchers, as well as large paintings and murals of landmark events in medicine.

Elsewhere in the issue, we appreciate the adeptness with which artists probe, even play with, our visual systems’ responses to the hues, saturation, and luminance of colors. From a curricular standpoint, we consider how artwork taps the emotions and contributes to the observational skills of our physicians, residents, and medical students. We also describe how the work of an artist can captivate a physician in our tale of Harvey Cushing, Class of 1895, a twentieth-century neurosurgeon, and Andreas Vesalius, a Renaissance anatomist and artist.

When physicians and painters collect their thoughts on a patient or a painting, they’re translating what they see, hear, and feel. Francis Peabody, Class of 1907, recognized this when, in his The Care of the Patient, he wrote: “What is spoken of as a ‘clinical picture’ is not just a photograph of a man sick in a hospital bed; it is an impressionistic painting of the patient surrounded by his home, his work, his relations, his friends, his joys, sorrows, hopes, and fears. …”

We invite you to look and to savor.