U. receives 45 significant medical paintings from Pfizer
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 Thom. Reproductions appeared in magazines and doctors' offices, and a book of them was given to thousands of new physicians. 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.
The University has received Thom's medical history paintings as a gift from their most recent owner, Pfizer Inc. A committee from the U-M Health System and U-M Museum of Art is now planning to exhibit many of them in public spaces across the 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 Dr. Robert Kelch, 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 21st century."
A second gift to U-M, from Al and Colette Kessel, will fund the hanging of the paintings around the medical campus.
The works, all oil on masonite, range in size up to 5 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.
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.
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.
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 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 Dr. Jonathan Metzl, director of the Program in Culture, Health and Medicine. "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 Dr. Joel Howell, director of the Program in Society and Medicine.