A major gift of art and history: U-M receives 45 significant medical paintings from Pfizer

November 29, 2007
  • umichnews@umich.edu

More than 50 years ago, a Michigan-based pharmaceutical company commissioned a Michigan painter to depict dozens of great moments in medical history, from ancient Egypt to the United States in the 20th century.

Within a few years, the entire nation knew the paintings by Robert A. Thom. Reproductions appeared in magazines and doctors’ offices, and a book of them was given to thousands of new physicians. With a Norman Rockwell-style realism, the works epitomized the optimism of the time in which they were painted, and the nation’s faith in post-World War II medical and scientific triumphs.

Now, 45 of those paintings are coming home to Michigan, to an institution that will share them with the public as never before.

The University of Michigan has received Thom’s medical history paintings as a gift from their most recent owner, Pfizer Inc (link is external). A committee from the U-M Health System and U-M Museum of Art (link is external) is now planning to exhibit many of them in public spaces across the U-M medical campus, with financial help from art-loving donors.

“These works hold both historical and cultural significance for the entire field of medicine, and special significance for our institution because of the artist’s ties to our state,” says Robert Kelch, M.D., U-M executive vice president for medical affairs and CEO of UMHS. “In fact, when I graduated from the U-M Medical School, each of us received a book of reproductions of these very paintings, which I’ve kept to this day. We’re very grateful and honored that Pfizer has chosen us to preserve these paintings, and to share them with our faculty, staff, students, patients and visitors.”

James Steward, director of UMMA, adds, “These paintings are a remarkable product of their time, but are no less significant for this. They speak powerfully to how all art is shaped by its historical context, and do so in ways that offer tremendous interest for viewers and scholars in the twenty-first century.”

A second gift to U-M, from Al and Colette Kessel, will fund the hanging of the paintings around the U-M medical campus. The Kessels share Dr. Kelch’s love of art, and wanted to help realize his goal of making the Thom paintings available to the public.

The 45 works, all oil on masonite, range in size up to five feet wide or tall. Thom researched each one meticulously before painting, and traveled to many of the sites depicted. He aimed to show scientific and cultural details as accurately as possible, according to the historical and anthropological knowledge of his day. It is estimated that Thom traveled nearly 250,000 miles through North America and Europe during his research for the series, studying artifacts and locations intently.

Thom’s subjects range from the ancient Greek temples of Asclepius, the demigod of medicine, to the first use of a smallpox vaccine by Edward Jenner, to the founding of the American Medical Association, and the discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Roentgen.

His commission came from Parke-Davis & Co., which at the time was the largest pharmaceutical firm in the country and had its research headquarters in Ann Arbor near U-M. Pfizer acquired the paintings in 2000 as part of its acquisition of Warner-Lambert, which had acquired Parke-Davis in 1970.

The series was formally titled A History of Medicine in Pictures, and many of the paintings were published as individual plates in magazines, as lithographs, and in book form as Great Moments in Medicine, with text by George Bender describing the story behind each painting. A full-length movie explored the “story behind the story” of the paintings.

The book and prints became a kind of “Rosetta stone” for generations of doctors, and were well known among everyday Americans too. The oil paintings toured the U.S. and Canada, appearing in Parke-Davis-sponsored shows at medical conferences and other events.

Some of the Thom medical history paintings have recently been exhibited in Michigan as part of larger installations, including 15 that were displayed in 2000 at UMMA in the exhibition Seeing is Healing? The Visual Arts of Medicine in honor of the U-M Medical School’s 150th anniversary. Three were included in a 2003 exhibit at the Birmingham Historical Museum, in Birmingham, Mich., near where Thom lived at the time of the original commission. But now that all the medical paintings are part of U-M’s collections, they can be exhibited in larger numbers. Specific plans for their display within U-M hospitals, clinical and research buildings will be announced at a later date.

Robert Thom was born in 1915 in Grand Rapids, Mich., and spent much of his adult life in metropolitan Detroit. He and his wife died in 1979 in a car accident in Alma, Mich., while visiting the state from their new home in Dallas.

His style of painting was based in the same American realist and pictorial tradition as Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth. Though not as well known as those artists, Thom was commissioned often, including a History of Michigan series for Michigan Bell Telephone. The medicine series followed immediately on the heels of Thom’s first Parke-Davis commission, of a series of 40 paintings illustrating the history of pharmacy that Pfizer recently gave to the American Pharmacists Association Foundation.

Each of his medical history works is a kind of “still life of discovery”, capturing a significant occasion and depicting either a famous medical scientist in action or a scene of healing from a particular time and place. Among the subjects are Andreas Vesalius demonstrating human anatomy, Ignaz Semmelweis convincing doctors to wash their hands before delivering babies, Louis Pasteur examining his famous swan-necked flask, and Walter Reed treating yellow fever in a battlefield tent.

This quest for historical accuracy in paintings that served as pharmaceutical company advertisements was a reflection of Thom’s times, and holds lessons for today, says a U-M Medical School psychiatrist and historian who has written two papers on the paintings and co-curated the 2000 exhibition.

“The Thom paintings represent an important chapter in American pharmaceutical advertising,” says Jonathan Metzl, M.D., Ph.D., director of the U-M Program in Culture, Health, and Medicine (link is external). “The images do not mention specific medications by name, but instead seek to create a specific aura by tying the company’s name to depictions of great medical advances, Parke-Davis sought to enhance the image of the pharmaceutical industry at a time when it was much less powerful than it is today.”

Metzl, an expert on the history of pharmaceutical company advertising, published articles on the Thom paintings in Academic Medicine in 2004, and in Literature and Medicine in Fall, 2006, together with Joel Howell, M.D., Ph.D., director of the U-M Program in Society and Medicine. Metzl accessed Thom’s research notes for both series of paintings, and spoke extensively with surviving family members including Thom’s son.