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November 29, 2007

Selected paintings from A History of Medicine in Pictures, by Robert Thom

These five works are from the series painted by Michigan artist Robert Thom in the 1950s, following a commission from Parke-Davis & Co. The entire series of 45 paintings was donated to the University of Michigan by Pfizer in 2007; read the press release on the gift here. For a high res version of the images, click on each image.

Jenner: Smallpox is Stemmed

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.

Leeuwenhoek and the “Little Animals”

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.

Pasteur: The Chemist Who Transformed Medicine

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.

Galen: Influence for 45 generations

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.

Hippocrates: Medicine Becomes a Science

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.



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