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....’ Read more
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:
old and experienced—
returning home at dusk
in cast off clothing
old Florentine oak.
the set pieces
of your faces stir me—
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
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.