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The Healing Art

July 2024
1min read

Three Hundred Years of Medicine in America: The Artists’ View

Like early American art, early American medicine was uniformly primitive. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes (whose own typical mid-nineteenth-century methods would appall a modern patient) described his colonial predecessor’s standard treatment. “His pharmacopoeia consisted mainly of simples,” he wrote, “St. John’s wort and Clown’s All-Heal … with opium in some form. … He would perhaps have a rheumatic patient wrapped in the skin of a wolf or a wild cat, and in cases of malignant fever … prescribed a certain black powder, which had been made by calcining toads in an earthen pot.”

But as we can see from the paintings on these and the following pages, our art and our medicine matured together: the drama inherent in the healing art provided inspiration for the painter. These works all come from “The Art of Healing: Medicine and Science in American Art,” an exhibition of some eighty-seven paintings that was organized by the Birmingham Museum of Art and shown there this spring. Much of the information from which our text was drawn came from the handsome exhibition catalogue, written by the art historian William H. Gerdts of the City University of New York, and published by the museum.

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