About Thom Pfeil's Art

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Philip M. Teigen Ph.D.
Deputy Chief, History of Medicine Division
National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD
December 31, 2003

Is there a relationship between the present, the past, and the future? Dr. Pfeil raises this question by juxtaposing ancient and modern images in jarring ways. In “Telemedicine,” for example he marries a sixteenth-century anatomical figure and its Renaissance Italian settings with images of a modern medical school and modern communications technology; in “Vesalius at Belgium” he does it again, and in “Cyborg,” he juxtaposes machine language with human language and technology with a human body. Are the past, present, and future connected? Does knowing the past teach us about the present or prepare us for the future?

Many historically minded physicians will answer yes; there are obvious connections between the past and present, and view Hippocrates, Vesalius, and William Osler as virtual contemporaries speaking directly to them. For physician-historians the Hippocratic Oath and aphorisms, such as “first, do no harm,” or “art is long; life is short” are still pregnant with meaning. On the other hand, historians of medicine having degrees from history departments assert that the circumstances surrounding the life and work of Hippocrates, Vesalius, and Osler are so different from those found in the twenty-first century that the Great Physicians have little to say to us now, and what they say is probably misleading.

Pfeil’s valuable contribution is to ask this perennial question and to stir up the discussion in a new and original way. For those in the Socratic tradition, framing questions is the hardest but most necessary task. It is hard because “in order to be able to ask, one must want to know, and that means knowing that one does not know.” It is necessary because “to ask a question means to bring into the open. The openness of what is in question consists in the fact that the answer is not settled.” (Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 362-3). Historians, scientists, and physicians who do not want to know what they do not know will turn away from Pfeil’s searching images; those who truly want to learn and think about medical history as event or as research into the past will pause before them.

Although his work is notable for its originality, for a historian like myself, Pfeil revives in medicine an important tradition recently in eclipse. This is the tradition of “wit” that flourished in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. “Wit” then did not have its current meaning of “comic,” rather it meant an unusual visual and verbal acuity, inventiveness, intelligence, and the ability to make others see or hear what they hitherto had not. Many of Pfeil’s pictures contribute to this tradition. A good example being “Right Hand Town,” which merges the x-ray of a hand with an eighteenth-century map of Boston. The tradition of visual and verbal “wit,” is taken up in Claire Sherman’s Writing on Hands: Memory and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe  (Washington, DC: Folger Library, 2000). A perusal of this marvelous volume will show, in part, how deeply and how well Pfeil is extending this venerable, analytic tradition into twenty-first century medicine and history.

In sum, Pfeil’s persistent questioning about the nature of time and the understanding of medical change over time is important to the history of medicine. Once better known to those with serious historical intentions, his images will contribute to the creation of more insightful and thoughtful historical research.

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