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The Art of Surgery

Paintings by Joseph R. Wilder, M.D.

In his paintings of life in the operating room, noted artist and surgeon Joe Wilder, a graduate of Dartmouth College, offers revealing insights into a milieu that is at once awesomely technical and profoundly intimate.

Everything passes—robust art alone is eternal. The bust survives the city," wrote 19th-century French art critic Theophile Gautier. A contemporary case in point may be the works of 1942 Dartmouth College graduate Joseph Wilder, M.D.

A retired surgeon as well as an artist of note, Wilder has produced numerous oil paintings of what transpires in the operating theater— images that will surely survive the shiny suites they depict. For in Wilder's operating rooms, surgery becomes not the most high-tech of specialties but the epitome of the intimacy inherent in the physician-patient relationship— a process where one human being probes the innermost recesses of another.

The New York Times has called Wilder "a Renaissance man." He has two books of artwork (as well as two surgical texts) to his credit— Athletes: The Paintings of Joe Wilder, M.D. (published in 1985 by Harry Abrams, a noted publisher of fine-art books) and Surgical Reflections: Images in Paint and Prose (published in 1993 by Quality Medical Publishing). He was one of nine Ageless Heroes featured in a 1998 PBS special on the vitality and potential of men and women over age 65. His artwork has been covered in major magazines and art books.

Wilder's paintings in this article are excerpted from a book that he is in the process of completing, titled Paintings of Life in the Operating Room: The True World of Surgery. It includes commentary, some of which is reproduced here, from the worlds of both medicine and art—insights by Wilder himself; by his fellow Dartmouth alumnus C. Everett Koop, M.D., Sc.D.; by noted transplant surgeon Thomas Starzl, M.D., Ph.D.; and by art critic Donald Kuspit, Ph.D.

Kuspit is a professor of art history and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He holds a Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Visual Arts from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, as well as the College Art Association's Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism. He is the author of more than 20 books.

Starzl is the director of the University of Pittsburgh's transplantation institute, which bears his name and is the world's largest transplant program. He holds 18 honorary degrees, the Medal of the Boston Surgical Society, and the Medawar Prize of the Transplantation Society and has to his credit thousands of scientific publications.

Koop, a 1937 graduate of Dartmouth College, earned his M.D. at Cornell and is known as "America's family doctor" for his tenure as U.S. surgeon general from 1981 to 1989. But he spent the bulk of his career as a pediatric surgeon. He was a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania; surgeon-in-chief at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia from 1948 to 1981; and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Pediatric Surgery from 1964 to 1976. He holds 35 honorary degrees and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award. Now head of Dartmouth's C. Everett Koop Institute, he is also the Elizabeth DeCamp McInerny Professor of Surgery at DMS.

Wilder himself graduated in 1942 from Dartmouth College, where he was an all-America lacrosse player, and earned his M.D. at Columbia. Before his retirement, he was chief of surgery at New York's Hospital for Joint Diseases and a professor of surgery at Mt. Sinai Medical School.

He has painted for many years but has been able to devote much more time to his brushes ever since he set down his scalpels a decade ago. On these and succeeding pages are evidence of his efforts.

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