This article appeared in the November 2008 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

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Book Review - Annemarie Papanikitas

Medicine and Art

Alan E H Emery and Marcia Emery

Royal Society of Medicine Press Ltd (28 Nov 2002) £40, Hardback

In this first volume of their trilogy the authors take us on a journey dating back from paleomedicine to the modern scientific period and contemporary technological innovation. Through its illustrations the book broadly documents how the role of the physician has been influenced through time by psychology and social and cultural factors.

Three quarters of the 53 plates in this volume relate to the roles and responsibilities of the general practitioner and the clinical consultation. Other plates depict a diversity of healers and carers in different cultures and societies.

The writers mention and show works to illustrate the importance of the Christian Church in the history of medicine. Medical care until relatively recently was, for the most part, under the auspices of religious orders. Being educated with the ability to read and write the monks and nuns were familiar with medical practices that were going on elsewhere. Despite the belief that recovery was the result of divine intervention the Church acknowledged and respected the powers of secular healing as in Graeco-Roman times.

The authors have included a painting entitled "St. Humility Healing a Sick Nun" that illustrates the healing qualities of faith and the role of the Church in Medicine during the fourteenth century. Painted by Pietro Lorenzetti (1341) it depicts the saint in a convent ministering to a sick nun whilst in the adjoining room there is a less optimistic response from the visiting physician who gestures his helplessness towards the condition of the sick nun.

The two most potent works that the Emerys bring to our attention are "Science and Charity" painted in 1897 by Pablo Picasso at the tender age of sixteen and "The Doctor" by Sir Luke Fildes (c 1891). The dramatic effect realized by these scenes is no doubt due to the fact that both artists had recently suffered personal loss. Pablo Picasso had lost his sister two years previously. His painting is a realistic depiction of a doctor and a nun at the bedside of a sick woman. The doctor with his knowledge and skill, modeled on his father, represents the science aspect of the painting. The nun offering a drink to the sick woman represents charity and the caring aspect of medicine at that period.

Sir Luke Fildes’s painting, probably one of the most famous of all medical paintings, depicts a doctor keeping an all night vigil over a critically ill child. It was based on a Dr. Murray who in fact attended the artists own dying son a few years prior. The painting has a more joyful ending as the scene portrays the devoted gaze of the doctor as the dawn light breaks with the child having survived the night. This poignant, striking scene presents a vigilant and solicitous doctor who is unable to do little to combat the infection but acting as a custodian can only console and offer his support to the family. It remains a graphic reminder of how the practice and impotence of medicine were before the era of scientific medicine.

On a lighter note the Emerys have included depictions of a variety of quack doctors in their collection of paintings. A subtly humorous painting by Gerrit Dou entitled The Quack Doctor (1652) depicts a colourful genre scene with a quack doctor at centre stage selling potions under a Chinese umbrella. The quack, attired in the academic robes that would have been worn by the physicians at that time, is promoting his wares to the gathering crowd who give off various responses. As in many of the earlier renaissance paintings the artist portrays himself in the painting, sitting in a window looking out at the viewer. He appears to be inviting us to take part, or at least comment on this debate.

Also reproduced in the Emerys book are works by the eighteenth century satirical artists William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson, who along with others overstated the dubious state of the medical profession in Britain during that period. What appears to be highly significant in "The Inspection" by Hogarth, from his Marriage à la Mode series, are the doctor’s countless useless images and objects, referring to ineffectual remedies, surrounding the quack in his clinic. Hogarth showed great compassion to the vulnerable and the sick in society and was highly critical of the medical profession who he portrayed as being sybarites who reveled in exaggerating their limited diagnostic skills and treatments.

On the cover of ‘Medicine in Art’ the authors draw our attention to the nineteenth century, the dawn of medical science as we recognize it, and a period when many diagnostic tools were invented. Here a painting by Ernest Board (1910) depicts Rene Laennec listening to the chest of a patient with his monaural stethoscope invention. Laennec, who invented his stethoscope in 1816, is very expressively portrayed at an intense moment as he interprets the sounds coming from his patient’s chest. This iconic image is a redoubtable reminder that Rene Laennec’s invention in its many forms has become a symbol of medicine itself.