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Medical detectives of the National Gallery

By Clare S Ryan, on 14 September 2011

For Professor Michael Baum (UCL Research Department of General Surgery), the National Gallery is not just an extraordinary art museum, it’s a medical school. In his lecture at the British Science Festival, he treated the audience to a virtual version of the “ward rounds” of the National Gallery that he takes his medical students on to teach them the art of diagnosis.

A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph

Piero di Cosimo, A Satyr mourning over a Nymph, about 1495 (©) The National Gallery, London

Professor Baum believes that classical paintings can reveal a great deal about anatomy, the history of medicine, pathology and even uncover murders.

With a bit of artistic and medical sleuthing, Professor Baum and his students have published many papers describing medical diagnoses, ranging from syphilis to Paget’s disease, which give new perspectives on paintings that have been around for hundreds of years.

In the first half of his lecture, Professor Baum, who is an internationally recognised breast cancer surgeon, showed a series of images reaching right back to ancient Egypt that reveal the history and treatment of breast cancer.

He described paintings of St Agatha, the patron saint of breast cancer (so called because she was martyred by having her breast amputated), which often depict women’s fear of both their impending death and the prospect of “gross mutilation” by mastectomy. He also highlighted a painting by Rembrandt where a model, unbeknown to the artist, seems to have had a breast tumour.

The second half of the lecture focused on the paintings in the National Gallery that Professor Baum uses to teach his students the principles of observation and diagnosis. One of the most arresting examples he gave was of the painting A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph by the Italian artist Piero di Cosimo.

Although the painting is officially about a young woman who has been accidentally killed by her husband on a deer hunt, Professor Baum and his students have shown how the marks on her body and the position of her limbs are consistent with the woman being violently stabbed to death.

This was a really inspiring lecture (I’ll certainly be making a trip to the National Gallery soon) and I would highly recommend an article in the Observer last weekend that goes into a bit more detail about Professor Baum and his medical detective work on classical art. The journalist who wrote the article says, “Seen through Baum’s eyes, the entire National Gallery looks more like a doctor’s waiting room”. Although it’s probably the greatest waiting room in the world, I couldn’t agree more.

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