The art of surgery: Cary Levine on the intersection of art and science

Levine_CaryIt’s seven a.m. on a spring morning, and associate professor of art Cary Levine is at UNC’s Memorial Hospital, delivering an early morning lecture to an unexpected crowd — UNC medical students.

Enlarged on the projector screen is a slide of Thomas Eakins’s 1875 painting, The Gross Clinic. The painting is one of the first to depict a physician performing surgery, Levine explains, and to understand its significance, “we must place ourselves in the position of a nineteenth century American viewer, or even patient, confronted with a relatively new medical technique.”

The Gross Clinic was painted at a time when surgery was emerging as a major technological advance, “yet it was met with great skepticism by the public,” Levine explains. More than simply “documentation,” Eakins’s painting signaled the beginning of a cultural shift in the acceptance of surgery as a medical practice. “The respect for the physician as seen in this painting was certainly not a given,” he says. “Eakins is showing us not only state of the art medical developments, but the birth of the modern idea of the doctor as the master of the unknown.”

Importantly, Levine argues, it was not simply the scientific ideas or advances that helped make surgery an accepted practice. “Eakins presents medicine as a rational, respectable practice, but also an art form,” Levine explains. In both The Gross Clinic and a later painting, The Agnew Clinic, Eakins helps to “establish medicine’s conventions by employing aesthetics. Art and science are made to mutually affirm one another.”

For Levine, this pointthe interconnectedness of art and scienceis salient. He points to the distinctions between art and science as a modern phenomenon. “During the time Eakins was painting, art and science were much more intertwined,” Levine says. “Artists were scientists and scientists were artists.” Levine has been working to make sure that this point is not lost on students or educators at UNC. “The idea behind all of this is to advocate for the arts and humanities as relevant to the sciences,” he explains. “I’ve always been a person who likes to bring art into places it doesn’t belong.”

The Gross Clinic, 1875

Levine, who was a Faculty Fellow in the spring of 2015, serves on UNC’s Quality Enhancement Plan steering committee. The focus on the 2016 QEP is “Improving Learning in the Sciences: Readiness for Science and Health Professionals,” so, naturally, Levine is attentive to the inclusion of the arts and humanities. His medical school lecture on Thomas Eakins’s paintings came from a fifteen-minute presentation to the QEP steering committee. Dr. Bruce Cairns, the John Stackhouse Distinguished Professor of Surgery and chair of the faculty in the School of Medicine, invited Levine to present on Eakins after hearing the QEP presentation.

Levine is also part of an interdisciplinary research team conducting Pass the Popcorn, a National Institute for Health-funded study of children’s perceptions of depictions of diet, exercise, and body image in movies. IAH Fellows Andy Perrin and Eliana Perrin are the lead researchers on the study.

For Levine, one of the most important lessons of The Gross Clinic is that what we know today as a convention (scientific or otherwise) is actually rooted in a particular historical momentand that moment is shaped by cultural, political, and ideological forces. “Doctors were considered quacks for a long time,” Levine notes. “Through the arts, we come to understand that our understanding of what a doctor is has changed. This kind of way of looking at art actually sheds light on the historical specificity of science.”

Story by Jenny Morgan, Institute for the Arts and Humanities