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Medical Masterpieces: Perceptions paint a portrait of famous physicians

By Leah Burgin, Managing Arts Editor
Published September 17, 2012

It’s a beautiful day: The sun is shining, the sky is clear and the ocean is an even swab of calm cobalt. Everything is still and picturesque — at least, from a distance.

Focusing on the foreground, a more dynamic scene emerges. A man is being held to the ground, restrained by two others. Though a third man holds a blade to the grounded man’s head, exposing his skull and bloody flesh, this is not a violent encounter.

The blade-wielding man is a surgeon in ancient Peru performing a trephination on his patient, surrounded by his tools, his assistants, a spiritual leader and the pristine beach. This practice, also known as trephining, is a complex procedure that removes a small part of a patient’s skull to relieve cranial pressures, and throughout prehistory it was thought to have helped alleviate the symptoms of epilepsy and other afflictions.

The amount of detail in the Peruvian scene is apparent. From the elaborately embellished garb of the spiritual overseer to the precise organization of the surgeon’s equipment, it is clear that the painter dedicated time and effort to this artwork.

But wait, how is this scene so clean? Though it’s set on a beach, there are no stray grains of sand sneaking into the surgeon’s work place. Furthermore, why is such a high-risk surgery taking place on the beach instead of a designated healing area? Ancient Peruvians, the forerunners of the Inca Empire — an empire famous for its city planning, architectural achievements and a highway system that could give the Roman Empire a run for its money — would most likely have had the beginnings of a sophisticated health system.

Why would the painter have staged this scene in such a way? What was he trying to accomplish? And, perhaps more importantly, why should contemporary viewers care about a painting depicting an ancient medical practice on a South American beach?

Individuals at the University have differing opinions on the answers to these questions, interpreting the painting as art, as an important historical image and as an emotive, nostalgic item.

Great Moments

The image in question was researched, staged and painted by Robert Thom, a Birmingham, Mich. native. Titled “Trephining in Ancient Peru,” this piece was one of 45 oil paintings in the Great Moments in Medicine series Thom was commissioned to paint by Michigan-based pharmaceutical company Parke, Davis & Co. in the 1950s and ’60s.

“Trephining in Ancient Peru” currently hangs outside the South Lecture Hall in Medical Science Building II with 15 others from the series.

The Great Moments in Medicine Series and its sister series, Great Moments in Pharmacy, were undertaken as efforts in historical advertising by Parke, Davis & Co, according to Jacalyn Duffin and Alison Li in their article published for The History of Science Society, “Great Moments: Parke, Davis and Company and the Creation of Medical Art.” The set of 85 paintings were reproduced and displayed prominently in drugstore windows and doctor’s office waiting rooms during the mid-20th century.

While Duffin and Li note that several other companies commissioned historical art projects during this time, Thom’s paintings have proven themselves to be the most prolific.

Robert P. Kelch, M.D., former executive vice president for medical affairs at the University, remembers seeing Thom’s works displayed in public places growing up. As part of Kelch’s graduation ceremony from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1967, he and his classmates were presented with a book featuring Thom’s medical art.

“When I was a medical student, I was very touched by Thom’s paintings,” Kelch said. “He captured the essence of the history of medicine in a way that was very touching and meaningful to a young medical student way back when.”

In 2007, when Pfizer Inc. — the pharmaceutical giant acquired by Parke, Davis & Co.