Portraits of Pathology

As I research on the impact of Chinese export art on the development of portraiture in Southeast Asia and the increasing popularity of  commissioning portraits for posterity, I recall another use of portraiture, this time in the name of medicine and science.

A group of oil paintings by the nineteenth-century Cantonese artist known as Lam Qua consists of images of Chinese patients of a leading medical missionary Reverend Dr. Peter Parker, an American Presbyterian minister and physician who, in 1835, opened a hospital in Canton and soon acquired such a reputation as a surgeon that brought him thousands of cases. Among these patients were a number afflicted with tumors of a size and deformity seldom seen and almost unimaginable.

Lo Wanshun (Woman with tumor on left cheek), Lam Qua, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches, Sarcomatous tumor, 1836 "The wound healed by the first intention, and in ten days the dressing was wholly removed. The face had nearly its natural appearance. Grateful and happy, she returned to her husband and family."

Lo Wanshun (Woman with tumor on left cheek), Lam Qua, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches, Sarcomatous tumor, 1836
“The wound healed by the first intention, and in ten days the dressing was wholly removed. The face had nearly its natural appearance. Grateful and happy, she returned to her husband and family.”

Close up of Lam Qua's 'Kwan Meiurh' or Woman with diseased breast, oil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches, ca. 1838. The Gordon Museum

Close up of Lam Qua’s ‘Kwan Meiurh’ or Woman with diseased breast, oil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches, ca. 1838. The Gordon Museum

The attention to the accurate portrayal of facial expression is what struck me. Although the purpose of the paintings is purely for scientific enquiry, Lam Qua’s images are a sobering portrayal of human suffering and the scourge of disease. These paintings capture a pivotal period in history for the understanding and treatment of cancer. The study of extreme tumour growths in the 19th century physicians noted that cancerous tumours tended to ulcerate, grew constantly, and progressed to a fatal end and that there was scarcely a tissue they would not invade. Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902), often called the founder of cellular pathology, founded the basis for pathologic study of cancers under the microscope, correlating microscopic pathology to illness. This formed the basis of mankind’s modern understanding of cancer, a disease that has plagued humanity for centuries [first reference made to cancer by Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370 BC0]

These paintings capture a period of history in the 19th century, which saw the birth of scientific oncology with use of the modern microscope in studying diseased tissue or tumours. One might begin gawking at the abnormality with repulsion and fascination, but Lam Qua’s detail to portraying facial expression urges us to also recognise its humanity.

Each painting is accompanied by a corresponding report from Dr. Peter Parker’s case history files. Here’s one example:

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p style=”text-align:center;”>”It was in the warm month of June when she first came to the hospital, the thermometer averaging 96 degrees in the shade. About to embark for Lew-chew in Japan, I advised her to defer the operation until the cold weather of autumn. But no delay could be acceded to on the part of the patient and her venerable grandfather. The tumor was removed. The operation was performed in about two minutes. The tumor weighted sixteen pounds. In ten days the wound was healed. In December, after my return from Japan (December 17, 1837), the patient returned to the hospital to express her gratitude, and brought with her her first-born son, a fine infant of six weeks old.”

“The Mysteries of Lam Qua” website grew out of a seminar taught at Michigan State University in the Fall of 2001 entitled “Medicine, Race, and Culture.” The course was part of a collaboration of three Michigan Universities (Michigan State University, University of Michigan, and Wayne State University) to develop a humanities-based interdisciplinary undergraduate curriculum that would prepare students going into the health sciences, health professions, or humanities with health interests. It is a joint project headed up by the University of Michigan, entitled “Seeing the Body Elsewise: Connecting the Health Sciences and the Humanities,” that seeks to integrate cultural approaches to the body, and as such it is part of a new and growing commitment to understand the body, medicine, science, and technology in social, cultural, and historical contexts through complex philosophical frameworks and varied disciplinary perspectives. Funding for this website is provided by the U.S. Department of Education through a FIPSE grant.

This gallery explores the distinction between likeness and representation to help understand the power of these images and how medical imaging functions. It includes an interactive flash presentation that encourages seeing these paintings in different ways.

A fine example of using reinterpreting ‘art’ using digital technology. I wonder if there are any of such paintings in Southeast Asia.

Click here to view the complete archive of the collaboration.

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