Medicine and art may seem entirely unrelated, but photographer Andrea Baldeck ’72 manages to combine both. Her exhibit “Bones, Books and Bell Jars” will be in the Palmer Gallery October 24 through November 14, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. The exhibit, a series of photographs based on Baldeck’s book of the same name, offers a look at medicine and art as it exists historically and in her life; she practiced as a medical doctor for many years before becoming a professional photographer.
“My subject matter reflects my eclectic interests and the opportunities I’ve had to take my camera afar and make the most of the subject matter at hand. I’ve been fascinated with the botanical world and portraiture for a long time. The camera was a way of exploring and recording all of these interests,” Baldeck said.
The still-life photographs in “Bones, Books and Bell Jars” arose from an opportunity to explore the collection of specimens, old textbooks, medical instruments and other 19th-century relics of the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Baldeck believes it is the closest collaboration between her medical and artistic experiences.
“I thought it would be fun to tell the history of western medicine through still life. I didn’t try to do it pedantically or chronologically, but to incorporate different views that would stimulate the lay viewer. What I wanted to do was catch the eye,” she said.
To do this, Baldeck built upon the books she found in the Mutter library for two years. The library houses resources containing images of anatomical models, diagrams and photographs that would form the basis of her series. “They were amazing illustrated books that tell us a lot about how the body was approached in the earlier days of medicine,”
“I found that our present attitudes toward medicine contain great expectations and that the role of the doctor has changed. In the early 18th century, a doctor’s role wasn’t to necessarily offer a cure but to provide succor. To offer, in the absence of a cure, reassurance and mediation of pain. Today, I think we expect incredible insight and rapid relief. Doctors in the 19th century readily admitted their limitations and worked more closely with the clergy,” she said.
Baldeck’s findings show that for centuries art, medicine and technology worked hand in hand. Many believe that the rise of technology in medicine occurred with the advent of antibiotics. On the contrary, as Baldeck’s collection shows through photos of early surgical instruments, technology drove medicine earlier. A physician approached the body in the way an artist would approach an abstract sculpture. There were early traditions of trade likened to the art world, and this revealed how physicians utilized art to treat disease and for information. These findings got Baldeck interested in how early doctor-patient relationships existed.
“Bones, Books and Bell Jars” is Baldeck’s third photography exhibit at Vassar. “This should be a great way to appeal to a varied audience. I’m not too concerned that some of the images will take people aback. The images come from a teaching collection used to instruct medical students since 1987. Some of the specimens in formaldehyde are unnerving. The images date from an era before the science of genetics, ultrasound and congenial abnormality. They were the best method for exploring abnormality and human development,” said Baldeck.