Art History techniques enhance future doctors’ observation skills

Wednesday, March 8, 2017
The Gross Clinic

Scientists and artists have always had shared interests. With the rise of humanism in Europe during the Renaissance, artists led the way in representing and understanding the human body. Leonardo da Vinci’s grasp of body mechanics and novel presentations of anatomy preceded Andreas Vesalius’s anatomical text by some 50 years.

Observation is a key skill for artists and doctors alike, but with sophisticated diagnostic imaging, concern arose the skill was eroding among physicians. In the late 1990s, Yale Medical School added the study of art to see if the observational abilities of future doctors could be sharpened. Museum and medical school collaborations are now common, designed to promote skills of observation, empathy, cultural sensitivity, teamwork and tolerance for ambiguity.

Art History Professor Susan Rather created the course “Art, Art History, and Medicine” launched last fall with 27 students—an equal number of majors in natural sciences, studio art and art education, and liberal arts and art history.

“Art history offers ways of understanding the past and the present, of understanding ourselves, really, as valuable as any other line of inquiry we may undertake,” she said. “I thought, ‘What if I were to develop an art history class for undergraduates who hope to attend medical school?’ I can offer a glimpse of the training they’ll eventually receive but place the emphasis on art history, its methods and tools.”

Rather, a specialist in American art, chose to focus on art produced in Western Europe and the U.S. from about 1500 to 1900, with particular attention to representations of bodies, physicians and medical procedures. The course culminates in extended study of Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic.

Throughout the course, students collaborated in interdisciplinary teams. For their final project, teams created a workshop for future medical students, which Rather described as mini-versions of the course itself. “It’s so great to see students from hard sciences, fine arts and humanities come together, developing mutual respect and empathy, as they work toward a common goal—all while learning some art history.”

Photo credit: Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic) Thomas Eakins, American, 1844 - 1916
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