Marc Patterson, M.D., recently diagnosed a patient he'd never met but had seen many times over the years. The patient, Anna Christina Olson, was the real-life inspiration for one of the most famous paintings in American history: Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World." According to a recent article in LiveScience, Olson, who lived near Wyeth in Cushing, Maine, "had a muscular disorder, long assumed to be polio." She chose not to use a wheelchair, according to the article, and "regularly crawled across the farm," a journey forever captured in Wyeth's painting.
Dr. Patterson was invited to diagnose Olson as part of the Historical Clinicopathological Conference held annually at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. It was an offer he couldn't refuse. "I enjoy any intellectual challenge — particularly one that mixes art and medicine," Dr. Patterson, chair of the Division of Child and Adolescent Neurology at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus, tells us. That made "diagnosing the canvas," as the practice is sometimes called, irresistible.
After reviewing Olson's known medical history, Dr. Patterson became convinced that Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease — not polio — was responsible for her symptoms. He told LiveScience that "polio has an acute onset, the deficit is maximum at onset, and then you get varying degrees of recovery afterwards." By contrast, "Olson's weakness developed slowly and spread through her body over the course of her life." (Other factors also contributed to his diagnosis, which you can read more about in LiveScience.)
Exercises like this are more than just fun and games, according to Dr. Patterson. "Anything that humanizes medicine helps students (and all physicians of whatever age are, or should be, students) by seeing illness from a different viewpoint," he tells us. "Great artists, by definition, see things that may not be apparent to those of us who are not so gifted."
Johanna Rian, director of Mayo's Center for Humanities in Medicine, agrees. That's one reason Mayo Medical School offers students "a range of humanities selectives" that are "designed to enhance observation and communications skills," Rian tells us. Courses include Arts at the Beside, Creativity for the Physician in Training, and The Human Elements: A Series in the Healing Arts. And it's an area of study that's likely to grow. At press time, Rian and Paul Scanlon, M.D., medical director of Humanities in Medicine at Mayo, were preparing to attend The Art of Examination, a forum for art museums and medical schools, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, "to discuss best practices for this type of learning activity for medical students."
If you'd like to try your hand (or eye) at diagnosing the canvas, take a look at some of the artwork Dr. Patterson has used to illustrate medical talks on "Hapsburg lip," patients experiencing seizures, and migraines. Then paint us a picture by sharing your comments below, and share this story with others using our handy social media tools.