Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

Strength in Vulnerability

Helen Brooke Taussig (May 24, 1898 - May 20, 1986), American cardiologist who founded the field of pediatric cardiology. Photograph taken for the cover of Modern Medicine, January 21, 1963. Wikipedia, public domain.


There is strength in acknowledging our fears individually and facing them collectively.

This is the first piece in a series of regular reflections on art by Dr. Kamna Balhara (@KamnaBalharaMD) and Dr. Sarah Clever (@SarahCleverMD1). As incoming fellows in the Harvard Macy Art Museum-based Health Professions Education Fellowship, they are thrilled to be carrying on the CLOSLER art challenge series established by Dr. Margaret Chisolm and Dr. Flora Smyth Zahra last year. Even though we can’t view art in person during the pandemic, there is still art all around us. The authors found inspiration in the halls of their workplace. This post refers to the portrait of Dr. Helen Taussig from the portrait collection at Johns Hopkins University.


The sitter, a world-famous 65-year-old pediatric cardiologist, surely had more insight into the artist, a 17-year-old (if a remarkably talented one), than the artist had into his sitter. Dr. Helen Taussig had been caring for children and adolescents for over 30 years at the time she sat for the portrait, and must have been very familiar with the energy, impulsivity, ambition, self-consciousness, and inquisitiveness that a young man might display. Still, she agreed to sit for him—perhaps the novelty of it even appealed to her—and the sittings themselves are said to have gone well.


What could Jamie Wyeth, a home-schooled teenage painter, understand about his sitter? He likely knew that she was famous, a physician, but their worlds probably overlapped very little. For him, already defining himself artistically as a contemporary realist, this likely represented an opportunity to capture what he saw as accurately as he could, and make the best of his renowned father’s gracious decision to pass the commission on to him. Did he know that a sitter might prefer to have her dress not slipped sideways, her hair not askew? Maybe; anyway, he did nothing to correct either. In some ways, the portrait represents a triumph of adolescent achievement, in making the work reflect his needs as an artist, and completely disregarding the social constructs of a commemorative portrait.


As a work of art, the painting is breathtaking. There is no background, just a torso and head in a shaft of light. There is strength in the set of her jaw, the firmness of her mouth, her unflinching eyes, and her steadfast gaze. In that gaze, there is also a flash of emotion—belonging to neither the benign and kindly nor the contemplative and intellectual varieties of medical portraiture—but anger, sadness, and tiredness in her furrowed brow. She is not adorned with any talismans of medicine: no white coat, no stethoscope. Her shirt slips, exposing an unexpected bit of defenseless flesh.


This portrait was painted in an extraordinary moment of vulnerability for Taussig. Her clinical division was facing serious financial difficulties, and she was mourning the death a week earlier of a teenage patient (perhaps one that Wyeth reminded her of), whom she had cared for since infancy. She drove alone to Cape Cod to sit for the portrait. With his young eye, perhaps still immune to biases and not attuned to professional expectations, Wyeth captured what he saw. It was not what Taussig’s colleagues and patients wanted to see. At the unveiling of the portrait, commissioned by Taussig’s admiring trainees, there were gasps of horror. The doctor who unveiled the portrait, a former fellow of hers, burst into tears. It was quickly whisked away, and spent several decades in Taussig’s attic before being put quietly on display in the Hopkins archives, over the strenuous objections of some of her trainees; others, however, appreciated the powerful representation of their mentor.


Perhaps what caused the painting’s audience such great distress was their surprise and discomfort at seeing a portrait of a doctor caught in the act of being human, and being reminded of the intensity and difficulty of what clinicians do, usually not visible to our patients and colleagues. Under our professional masks are hidden faces with these emotions, and the less-visible emotional scars of patients’ suffering and death. Witnessing all of that laid out on someone’s face is uncomfortable, but does it have to be shocking, distressing, or transgressive? Considering Taussig’s circumstances at the time, might we not even feel some kinship with her?


The grim anticipation of the coming weeks and months throw the intensity of this painting into greater relief. For both of us writing this piece, Dr. Taussig’s visage seems talismanic, calling across the years, endowed with our own palpable emotions. She represents our strength and our existential doubts. As we move forward into this uncharted territory, fear and uncertainty are inevitable elements of the landscape.


Creating safe spaces for each other’s vulnerability and pain will help us navigate this new terrain. We are all human, and we have our soft and susceptible spots. There is strength in allowing each other to acknowledge our fears individually, and in facing them collectively. What is familiar in this strange landscape of the pandemic is our collective courage, creativity, and compassion. We have each other, and that in itself is tremendous.