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Playful Petals

By Audrey T. McCollum

"The drive to observe and share observations with others has pervaded my life," my husband, the late Dr. Robert McCollum, reminisced last summer. Growing up on the flatlands of Texas in a modest farming family, "I vacationed in Colorado when I was five. I marveled at the beauty of the Rockies and photographed them with my box Brownie so I could share the views with my friends and relatives," he explained. Over the years he produced thousands of photos, including intimate images of our children and me, as well as the intriguing people and vistas he encountered during travels to distant places. The basement of our Etna house shelters shoeboxes filled with slides.

During his years of training as a physician and scientist, the same drive to observe and share observations with others informed his care of patients, his teaching of students and relations with colleagues. At the Yale University School of Medicine, he engaged in pioneering studies of viral illnesses and development of vaccines, and also became chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health. Yet he found time to take courses in acrylic and watercolor painting at New Haven's Creative Arts Workshop, even as he remained a devoted husband and father.

While he was dean of Dartmouth Medical School from 1982 to 1990, he studied various media with regional artists such as Charlet Davenport and helped establish the DHMC Arts Program to nurture a love of art among medical staff and patients. Later, after he retired from medical research and education, he had more time to explore the natural world that we loved and (having made the leap from box Brownie to digital camera!) he rediscovered the joys of recording it.

Long attracted to the work of Georgia O'Keeffe, he shared with her a delight in exploring the often-unnoticed interiors of his subjects. It was probably not coincidence that as his own illness worsened he was drawn toward expressions of new life seen in springtime blossoms. As his waning energy allowed, he would position himself within inches of his subjects. And his enduring sense of humor expressed itself when he conferred the name "Playful Petals" on the floral images he produced to share these discoveries with others.

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