When I walked into Joel Babb’s studio a few years ago, I was immediately drawn to a large painting in the middle of the room. Propped on an easel and framed by the gaze of the sun, the painting transported me to an operating room. Honestly, not a place I wanted to go. But when I looked closely, I realized it was an open heart surgery — the life-saving procedure I had done when I was 10-months old. I looked closer and noticed the instruments, the placement of the patient’s head, the colors.
“I had that surgery,” I said to Joel.
“So did I.” he smiled.
That painting has stayed with me and it’s not the first medical painting Babb has finished. I asked him to share some reflections on the art of medical painting — especially when the featured subject is so close to home. Here’s what he wrote:
In 1995-6, I painted a recreation of the first successful organ transplant which was done by Dr. Joe Murray at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (now known as Brigham and Women’s Hospital) in 1954. I love to paint landscapes but when I was asked me to do a painting of a famous surgical procedure I was immediately interested.
As part of the process of doing that painting Dr. Joe Murray, who received the Nobel Prize for the transplant surgery, took me around the operating rooms of the Brigham so I could observe and photograph operations while understanding the organization of the operating room. For this specific painting, I was working with the advice and cooperation of three doctors to recreate an event which happened 40 years before.
The operating room no longer existed, and there were only two black and white photographs taken from an observation gallery above on that day. So the doctors had to remember the configuration of the room, the people present, and I had to draw that room from a different perspective, and pose models in surgical gowns under both artificial and natural light. This required a whole series of drawings over several months to come to a final composition. This painting was conceived as complementing the Countway’s painting of the first use of anesthesia (ether) in surgery by Hinckley.
The painting of the first use of anesthesia by Hinckley hangs in the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. The doctors told me that anesthesia was the greatest surgical innovation of the 19th century, and they regarded transplantation as the greatest innovation of the 20th century.
I envisioned my painting as a pendant to the Hinckley — the figures are the same size as those in the Hinckley, but my painting is somewhat smaller because the rooms depicted are smaller. I tried to make the style contemporary, but subdued and historical. To me there is a feeling of transition as Dr. Moore carries the kidney from the donor operation to the recipient just as one moves from awareness through unconsciousness to awareness when you undergo surgery experience anesthesia. To Dr. Moore the transplant operation suggests the dawning of a new day of surgery.
After completing the transplant painting, I asked Dr. Moore if he could arrange for me to observe and photograph further surgeries with the intention of doing a contemporary surgical painting without the constraints of doing a commission. He agreed.
I remember photographing a mastectomy, a breast reduction, a complicated breast reconstruction, removal of a formerly transplanted kidney, and a lung cancer operation. But what I really wanted was to observe a heart operation — I had open heart surgery myself as a boy of 13 in 1960. The idea of a saving surgical intervention has been part of my development ever since.
I was able to observe Dr. John Collins and his team do a bypass operation. During the procedure the anesthesiologist let me stand in her place near the head of the patient, on a little foot stool which enabled me to see over the “ether screen,” giving me an incredible view of what the surgeons were doing. Continue reading