A recent article highlighting medical services and doctors in art told a story that is common: women doctors are not being recognized. The article highlights ten famous paintings and not one of them depicts a woman doctor. While this is not surprising considering the eras in which they were painted, it is discouraging for women doctors since art influences the public’s perceptions. This article speaks about the influence that art has on us, an influence that seems surprising when you consider that the influence of art has seemed to be decreasing. Patronage of galleries is decreasing, as has the interest in public art. Keeping all of this in mind, I began looking for images of women doctors in art. This has not been an encouraging exercise.
Some of the most iconic and the most influential images of doctors in North America were painted by Norman Rockwell. Most of these depict a kindly looking physician. The theme is often slightly humorous. The subjects of the art reflect scenarios every patient knows. The doctors are all men. Rockwell, and every other artist from the past, might be forgiven, but it is important for art to keep up with the times. It is important to all of us that we begin to remind everyone that many good doctors don’t look like Norman Rockwell’s any longer. Most doctors are no longer older white men.
(Norman Rockwell’s “Doctor and Doll”, first used on the cover of Saturday Night Post in 1929. This is an interesting article in the AMA Journal of Ethics that asks, in 2002, whether Rockwell’s paintings depict the default American persona. If not, what do they depict?)
Medicine is now practiced by humans of all genders. It is time for the art that depicts medicine to shed its sexist images and to celebrate the thousands of others who have practiced medicine in the last one hundred years, many of whom are women. This is important. The public and doctors themselves need to see beyond the images that have been promoting the profession for years. They limit the scope of medicine by limiting those whose work we bear witness to. It all goes back to influence. The public images, the art that we see and become familiar with: these are the images that shape our vision of a profession, both conscious and unconscious. Much has been written about the power of art to change the world, so let’s do it.
The image I leave you with is this image of a painting by American artist, Dr. Katheryn Ko, an American Neurosurgeon.
(Note: This painting is titled “A Mighty Woman with a Torch”.)