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Medicine, Art and Poetry

by Dr. Amitabh Mitra Bookmark and Share

Girolamo Fracastoro (1478-1553), Italian physician, scholar and poet. The name for syphilis is dervied from his epic poem, 'Syphilis or the French Disease,' which features a shepherd named Syphilis.

Medicine Art and Poetry, do they have anything in common? Can we prove through statistical associations that there is some significant value proving a common ground? I am not going to do that nor are those thousands if not millions of doctors who indulge in Poetry and Art with such passion, reserving a small section of consciousness for Medicine.
Well, whoever heard of a doctor artist or a doctor poet or even a combination of all three? Just go to the friendly doctor in your neighbourhood and ask him. He might be able to enlighten you about some if not in lots.
An interesting article appeared in the Time Magazine January 15 1945 -
‘A surprising number of good poets have been doctors, and a surprising number of good doctors have been fair (or entertainingly poor) poets. These two facts are demonstrated by an anthology of verse by doctors, Poet Physicians (C. C. Thomas, $5), published last week.
Almost everyone who has read The Chambered Nautilus knows that the elder Oliver Wendell Holmes was a doctor. But not many know or remember that John Keats, Oliver Goldsmith, Friedrich Schiller, Tobias Smollett, George Crabbe, Robert Bridges, Francis Thompson, and Lieut. Colonel John McCrae (In Flanders Fields) were doctors too....’
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It was just by chance that I met an artist who was displaying her huge canvases at a well known gallery in Delhi. From the moment I looked at her art, it all looked very familiar. It was only later that she told me that she is a practicing histopathologist at a hospital in the UK and what I was seeing were blown up images of columnar cells in variations done in oil on canvas, something I had seen through the microscope about 35 years back. Her canvases got sold and they adorn the drawing rooms of the wealthy in India who are ignorant of the fact that the beautiful art is an interpretation of a pathological mucosal call from the large intestine.

It has been proved in a cross sectional study that Music has relieved pain in post surgery patients. But is it possible to increase the CD4 cell count of AIDS afflicted patients by providing them with a daily dose of colours and asking them to pick up the brush. It may sound incongruous but then have we been able to heal so many of the diseases afflicting humankind? We really don’t even understand a majority of them.

William Carlos Williams (September 17, 1883 – March 4, 1963) a Paediatrician and a Poet, perhaps understood the reason of his writing :-

Why do I write today?

The beauty of
the terrible faces
of our nonentities
stirs me to it:

colored women
day workers—
old and experienced—
returning home at dusk
in cast off clothing
faces like
old Florentine oak.


the set pieces
of your faces stir me—
leading citizens—
but not
in the same way.

Rivika Galchen, a graduate of Mount Sinai School in USA and the author of Atmospheric Disturbances (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 2008 -

The vocabulary is estranging in a nice way," she says. "There's that old poetic trick where if you can describe something in a way that makes it unfamiliar when it's familiar, then you achieve an aesthetic sensation. Medicine is great for that, in making things you take for granted seem as strange and unsettling as they are."
Aesthetics and Medicine seem strangely apart. There aren’t any aesthetic techniques taught in the treatment of a patient in the Medical School. The attending doctor looks dishevelled and the hospital rooms smell of disinfectants. The patients- even the poorest- believe in wearing their best dress to the hospital. But then if one were to probe further, I believe aesthetics would surface because in some ways it has participated in the healing. The pharmacological aspects of a drug that fights the toxins and infection and the body’s own physiology that shares in the struggle to keep the aesthetics as it should be gives the aura of a much needed peace. The mind grapples to keep the fractured end of a bone together and the plate that is moulded on the bone to give a perfect curvature say volume about aesthetics.
Yet Poetry, Art and Medicine have lived separate lives. Science believing in sincere realism would not consider approaching the abstraction offered in Art and Poetry. The patient needs to be treated by means that have been provided and thinking beyond the realms of laid down rules of medical science would be bordering absurdity. But then this absurdity is the Medicine in reverse where planting such a thought would finally allow it to take root and bloom. The patient and his maladies can be understood with more far more clarity if one wishes to.
There is a pandemic of HIV AIDS in Africa. The disease has been following a clear socioeconomic pattern, upheavals of instability in the political sphere and illiteracy of understanding the spurt in inequality. The cultural universals that have bound populations together since ages have been broken; the finer aesthetics have been replaced with crass consumerism. Scientific thoughts in all their severity have replaced culture and identity. Colours and space are no longer respected. In this vast divide, strange diseases lurked and grew.
Art and Poetry will have to take the stern test in scientific ideology. If music can provide relief to postoperative pains compared to a control group, surely there should be a way to diminish a disease and increase one’s immunity by finding certain colours and certain thoughts to the extent of awakening the subconscious mind to find just that reprieve to fight another assault of a disease.
Agostinho Neto, the first President of Angola was a Physician Poet. He reflected on the torture of his people in this poem :–

here on the horizon
the fire
and the dark silhouettes of the imbondeiro trees
with their arms raised 1 in the air the green smell of burnt palm trees

On the road
the line of Bailundo porters
groaning under their loads of crueira

In the room
the sweet sweet-eyed mulatress retouching her face
with rouge and rice-powder
the woman under her many clothes
moving her hips on the bed
the sleepless man thinking
of buying knives and forks to eat with at a table

On the sky the reflections
of the fire
and the silhouettes of the blacks at the drums
with their arms raised in the air
the warm tune of marimbas

On the road the porters
in the room the mulatress
in the bed the sleepless man

The burning coals consuming with fire the warm country of the horizons.

More by : Dr. Amitabh Mitra
Views: 3591      Comments: 9

Comments on this Poem Article

Comment thank you amit presently i am practicing in mauritius. For international doctors day a renouned private hosp The Apollo Bramwell hosp did a exhibition which included doctors Art - viz- paintings, photos, poetry. We may do something in common one day

hemraz boodhoo
13-Apr-2013 00:00 AM

Comment Welcome Dr. Hemraz

Amitabh Mitra
13-Apr-2013 00:00 AM

Comment i am a consultant neurosurgeon...i have been painting and writing poetry since a long time i have 4 poems published in international books and my paintings have been used on the first cover of CME, medical journal for about 20 months in South Afria . i had a solo paintings exhibitions of 50 paintings oil on canvas mainly nature ..i also like music and play and sings a little bit.. wherever possible i always try to use these " non-medical skills" to heal my patients. i strongly believe that poetry ,music and paintings can play a significant role in healing patients

Dr hemraz boodhoo
25-Mar-2013 00:00 AM

Comment Many Thanks Dr. Hemraz. Would love meeting you. I stay in East London. Perhaps we can have a joint exhibition


Amitabh Mitra
25-Mar-2013 00:00 AM

Comment 16 March 2012
TO:Dr. Amitabh Mitra
It is heartening you are aware of my book. I hope it has propagated Tagore outside the narrow Bengali circle at least to some extent.
Incidentally, are you a poet of your own notwithstanding your being a Doctor (of flesh and blood, I guess). I'll look up your other pages in
Yours sincerely,
Rajat Das Gupta

Rajat Das Gupta
16-Mar-2012 00:00 AM

Comment TO: Dr. Amitabh Mitra 15 March 2012
Dear Dr. Mitra,
Your juxtaposition of Doctors / Poets & Artists was highly interesting. While Doctors are primarily concerned with human flesh & blood, aesthetics are considered by the public as sort of their stigma. But you have given ample examples where doctors have been aesthetes too.
Another profession which is similarly considered in conflict with aesthetics is that of the Chartered Accountants cum Auditors and I belong to that fraternity.. Yet, my book of Tagore translation ‘THE ECLIPSED SUN’ (TES) was published in January 2002 under some compulsion as I narrate below.
In early 1998 my firm had a 4-year audit assignment with Punjab & Sind Bank, almost all of its 800 branches over India being dominated by the Sikh community. Now, 1999 happened to be the Tercentenary year of their Khalsa movement, which their 10th and last Guru, Guru Govind Singh had launched in 1699 A.D. Naturally, this Sikh dominated Bank planned to gorgeously celebrate this Tercentenary year all over India in various ways e.g. by staging religious performances, publications etc. Getting me handy, they requested me to contribute some pages for their magazines. As my erudition would not permit me to write my independent dissertation, I offered them translation of a few poems by Tagore on the Sikhs which they readily published in their magazines and this was my debut as a Tagore translator, after which I continued my exercise which culminated into TES in January, 2002.
The book includes ‘Foreword’ of a number of luminaries e.g. Dr. Karuna Bhattacharya (former Pro-Vice Chancellor of the Calcutta University) and Mr. N. S. Gujral, former Chairman of aforesaid Punjab & Sind Bank. In her foreword Dr. Karuna Bhattacharya quotes Tagore’s celebrated song “My mind does not agree to prepare the balance-sheet of what I have got and what I have not” (ki peyechi ar ki paiini tar hisab milate mana nahi rajee). This aroused her curiosity to go through my script, as professionally I was an accountant! This implies, accountants / auditors engaging in poetical pursuits conflict with public acceptability.
Mr. N. S. Gujral in his foreword quotes from Tagore – ‘Languages are jealous. They do not give up their best treasures to those, who try to deal with them through an intermediary belonging to an alien rival. You have to court them in person and dance attendance on them. Poems are not like gold or other substantial things that are transferable. You cannot receive the smiles and glances of your sweet-heart through an attorney, however diligent and dutiful he may be.’ But a man cannot reach the shrine if he does not make the pilgrimage.” However, Mr. Gujral gives me credit having performed a tough job e.g. translating poetry, which is possibly more difficult than writing an original poetry out of one’s own inspiration.
To-day, when I look back, I wonder if my TES would see the light of the day, had we not received the audit assignment of this Sikh dominated Bank. So, my gratitude goes to the Sardar-jis who themselves are highly task oriented and at the same time very good task masters too – at least they made a poetry translator of an Auditor like me, how effectively, the members may judge if they will click up the good number of my translated poetry / articles already uploaded by this great site.
Incidentally, I always felt that translation literature should be a two-way traffic. So, freakishly at times, I translated English poetry also into Bengali. It includes, out of the poets you mention, Oliver Wendell Homes (‘Deacon’s Masterpiece’ & ‘Height of the Ridiculous’) & some sonnets of Shakespeare etc.

Yours sincerely.
Rajat Das Gupta

Rajat Das Gupta
15-Mar-2012 00:00 AM

Comment Heartiest congratulations, Rajat da
I am aware of your work


Amitabh Mitra
15-Mar-2012 00:00 AM

Comment Thanks a lot Nair Sahab. The Histopathologist had this very bright idea of showing tissue cells on the canvas. The result was a bright and abstract creativity which everybody loved, Histology and Visual Arts became one


Amitabh Mitra
11-Mar-2012 00:00 AM

Comment Dear Amit

That columnar cells painting made quite interesting reading. That shows the beauty hidden in our innards.

Liked this observation -"The mind grapples to keep the fractured end of a bone together and the plate that is moulded on the bone to give a perfect curvature say volume about aesthetics."

Fascinating article. Btw, John Keats is the most famous doctor poet:)

Best wishes
PGR Nair

PGR Nair
10-Mar-2012 00:00 AM


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