U-M Health System will work with U-M Museum of Art to display selected works by Michigan painter Robert Thom, originally painted for Parke-Davis
ANN ARBOR, Mich., Nov. 30 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- 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 A. Thom. Reproductions appeared in magazines and doctors' offices, and a book of them was given to thousands of new physicians. With a Norman Rockwell-style realism, 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 as never before.
The University of Michigan 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 U-M 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 Robert Kelch, M.D., U-M 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 twenty-first century."
A second gift to U-M, from Al and Colette Kessel, will fund the hanging of the paintings around the U-M medical campus. The Kessels share Dr. Kelch's love of art, and wanted to help realize his goal of making the Thom paintings available to the public.
The 45 works, all oil on masonite, range in size up to five 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 intently.
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. Pfizer acquired the paintings in 2000 as part of its acquisition of Warner-Lambert, which had acquired Parke-Davis in 1970.
The series was formally titled A History of Medicine in Pictures, and many of the paintings were published as individual plates in magazines, as lithographs, and in book form as Great Moments in Medicine, with text by George Bender describing the story behind each painting. A full-length movie explored the "story behind the story" of