pathos and pathology
September 2, 2008 5:00 PM   Subscribe

"Hidden within the basement archives of Yale University's Historical Medical Library lie the original oil painting collection and personal papers of the first American surgeon to practice in China." Extraordinary paintings of compassion in a medical setting. [Warning, these are graphic depictions, some NSFW] Elegant, disturbing and moving portraits of patients by Lam Qua, commissioned by a medical missionary named Peter Parker in the 1830's. [No, not that Peter Parker. Via MeFite tellurian's awesome blog].

Lam Qua and the development of a westernized medical iconography in China.

The Reverend Dr Peter Parker, a graduate of Yale, established the first American hospital in Guangzhou (formerly Canton) in 1835 and successfully introduced Western surgical techniques including amputation, anesthesia, and reconstructive surgery.

The Mysteries of Lam Qua, Medical Portraiture in China 1836-1855

Lam Qua, a Western-trained Chinese painter who also had workshops in the Thirteen Factories area, was commissioned by Parker to paint pre-operative portraits of patients who had large tumors or other major deformities.

posted by nickyskye (20 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
They're hideous, but I can't look away!
posted by king walnut at 6:25 PM on September 2, 2008

Wow. We take so much of modern medicine for granted.
posted by Xoebe at 7:19 PM on September 2, 2008

Xoebe, didn't you know it's all made-up solutions to non-problems?
posted by rodgerd at 7:42 PM on September 2, 2008

i enjoyed that link but didn't..... interesting.
posted by Frasermoo at 7:43 PM on September 2, 2008

Don't know what else to say except that portraits are fascinating but also very rugged viewing.
posted by The Straightener at 7:51 PM on September 2, 2008

Wow, thanks for posting these. They're fascinating as a piece of medical history, and enormously compelling as works of art.
posted by bookish at 7:51 PM on September 2, 2008

These are great, thanks!
posted by unknowncommand at 8:24 PM on September 2, 2008

Anyone know how common such growths are these days?

I suspect that many are surgically removed before getting to the advanced stages shown in the portraits...
posted by porpoise at 8:38 PM on September 2, 2008

I must be getting squeamish as I age. Great portraits, but I think I'd have gouged chunks out of myself with a knife before letting a tumourous mass grow that large (or seen a competent surgeon if one were available).
posted by BrotherCaine at 8:43 PM on September 2, 2008

More about Peter Parker in pp. 31-34 of A History of Yale's School of Medicine — Passing Torches to Others. He was quite the Yalie: we see in a letter to his mother in 1831:

"I arise at half-past five in the morning, and attend prayers in the Seminary. From this till breakfast, at half-past six, study Hebrew or Greek. From eight to ten, again study Hebrew or Greek. From ten to eleven, attend Dr. Ives' lecture on the theory and practice of medicine. From eleven to twelve, I am engaged in Miss Hotchkiss' school. From twelve to one, attend Dr. Knight's lecture on anatomy. From two to three p.m., a recitation to Professor Gibbs in Hebrew or Greek. From three to four I have a class in chemistry, or Paley's theology, then one hour for exercises, and the remainder of the day for study and attending meetings. This is a fair outline of every day's employment."
Considering the times, that is. There's a brief Parker biography here, and Wikipedia has more about medical missions in China.

How much did the Olympics cost again?

(Very nice post, Nicky.)
posted by cenoxo at 9:17 PM on September 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Anyone know how common such growths are these days?

Every once in a while I'll come across a patient who adamantly refuses any treatment for their cancer, or at least any conventional medical treatment. Yes, this is what happens, at least with soft tissue and skin cancer. Some of these paintings are still just hard to believe. Just imagine the pain and suffering and humiliation.

This is an amazing piece of medical history you've come across here, I'd never seen these before.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:20 PM on September 2, 2008

porpoise, if one Google Images for "massive tumor" or massive tumor with the name of a developing country, such as Vietnam or China, there are similar cases in these times too. It would, I imagine, depend on access to medical help and availability of money for treatment. Living in India I saw many situations very similar to the ones painted by Lam Qua and sometimes worse, like with elephantiasis (don't Google those images, unnnggg), leprosy, untreated infections etc.

I just found the paintings by Lam Qua particularly moving because they honor the person who had the illness. It's not just about the grotesqueness of the tumor, the cognitive dissonance between the serenity of most of the faces with what they were coping with is, imo, quite inspiring and touching.
posted by nickyskye at 9:28 PM on September 2, 2008

cenoxo, reading that second link of yours, it says "It is estimated that during two decades of ministry in China, Parker treated 50,000 patients. wow. A Presbyterian Bodhisattva.
posted by nickyskye at 9:45 PM on September 2, 2008

i know a lot of new-age types that insist cancer is a recent phenomenon caused by outgassing or gluten or bad energy... or whatever...

interesting to see that it has always been a terrifying, debilitating disease with no known cause and, for most, no cure.
posted by klanawa at 11:26 PM on September 2, 2008

Astonishing and moving. So many stories. I wonder how many patients survived the surgery.

Thanks for posting.
posted by freya_lamb at 1:22 AM on September 3, 2008

Grotesque, but with the sense that each portrait screams the pain of the person being painted.

Their dignity is intact; nonetheless one can't help but empathize with their pain. (In a 'were I them, I would have taken the knife to it long ago, even if I bled out and died' kind of way)
posted by librarylis at 2:13 AM on September 3, 2008

Challenging viewing. The combination of the grotesque and the suffering implied is unsettling. I actually felt queasy, not something I usually have trouble with.
posted by Onanist at 2:49 AM on September 3, 2008

As a parent, the one I find most moving is the mother holding the daughter with the gangrenous feet. Such love in the mother's face - and such sadness.
posted by anastasiav at 7:03 AM on September 3, 2008

"Elegant, disturbing and moving portraits of patients" is exactly right. Those portraits are amazing in their compassionate depiction of horrendous conditions. I can't imagine enduring many of those without attempting self-surgery.
posted by notashroom at 7:36 AM on September 3, 2008

I can't imagine enduring many of those without attempting self-surgery.
These are all portraits of people who saw the doctor. Those who died, whether of the cancer or of botched self-surgery or amateur surgery at the hands of friends, didn't get painted. Those who succeeded in self-treatment, or were successfully treated by friends, didn't get painted (although in some cases, the patients depicted may have unsuccessfully attempted it and survived, then sought professional help).
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:51 AM on September 4, 2008

« Older Medicalisation   |   Pictoplasma NYC Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments