In 1980 I was in the last year of medical school and getting ready to embark on my career as a doctor. The routine was to meet with an important faculty member in the Dean’s office, discuss the medical school experience, and talk about plans for the future. A summary would be placed in my permanent file, memorialized in a Dean’s Letter that would follow me to places I applied for a postgraduate job. I felt lucky, because I was assigned to Dr. A, a renowned professor who gained notoriety with research on the cause of cancer. He taught one of my second-year courses, and I always sat in the front row during his lectures.
We met in a plush room in the administrative suite. He asked about the highlights of the past three and a half years. I enthusiastically told him how I brought my sketchbook into anatomy lab to draw cadavers in various phases of dissection. I spoke about my elective in photomicroscopy, and how beautiful the patterns that biologic tissues made under high magnification. I recapped my career with the school newspaper, drawing editorial cartoons and illustrations.
Dr. A was looking at the ceiling and seemed far away. He turned to me and leaned across the table. “Bah!” he spat, with a dismissive flourish of his hand, “Nobody cares about that HOO-RAH stuff!”
Here was a professor who I idolized, but in a flash I realized that an artistic illiterate was about to write my Dean’s Letter. I scrambled to reformulate my thoughts about my accomplishments in medical school and delivered the goods as best I could.
After this experience I reflected on the physician-poets, writers and artists that I had read about. People like Andreas Vesalius, who illustrated the world’s first great anatomy text in 1542, or Eliot Porter, who photographed Glen Canyon before it was flooded by Lake Mead and whose work was published by the Sierra Club. I thought about AJ Cronin, whose autobiographical work entitled Adventures in Two Worlds explored his journey from a country doctor to a successful novelist. I recalled poetry by William Carlos Williams who became a famous poet scribbling verse on prescription pads between patients in his busy medical practice in Rutherford, New Jersey. I thought about Anton Chekhov, the Russian master of the short story who paid his medical school tuition with his writing. All this was “HOO-RAH Stuff” according to Dr. A.
I looked ahead to my medical residency, calculating how long it would take to repay my medical school debt and buy some good artist materials. When my internship started I took my first paycheck and drove to New York City where I bought an oak drafting table at Pearl Paint on Canal Street that I still use today. But the economic pressure and time-demands of a medical career pushed my dreams of combining art and medicine far into the future.
I am heartened that many American medical schools today have broadened their curriculum to include humanistic topics that offset the barrage of science and technology that is fed to their students.
Dr. A. has since passed on. I apologize, Dr. A, that I referred to you as an artistic illiterate. After all, you did contribute to our knowledge of cancer and performed a great service to public health. So after three decades of storage, in your honor I publish samples from my medical school sketchbooks in the slideshow above.
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