Looking versus seeing, surgery versus art

Sculpting, painting, drawing and other artistic endeavours demand finely honed skills of observation combined with the ability to recapitulate (in one way or another) the subject matter. Such skills of observation, analysis, and understanding are also a core surgical skill.

Da Vinci is an often-quoted example of an artist straddling the divide. By dissecting over thirty cadavers in his career, he equipped himself with an understanding that brought fantastic clarity and beauty to his work; be it portraiture or anatomical sketches. His astute observation no doubt advanced anatomical science.

Barbara Hepworth (1903-75) was a Yorkshire-born sculptor and artist. Following the hospitalisation of her daughter in 1944, she became friends with her daughter’s orthopaedic surgeon. Having been invited to witness a variety of operations, she produced a series of haunting works capturing some essence of the operating theatre. Surgeons, perhaps necessarily, become desensitized to the atmosphere and feelings that these drawings convey.

Both of these are examples where surgery, or the human form itself, have informed r inspired art. What of the converse? Can surgeons enhance their skills by borrowing the tools of the artist? Donald Sammut is a hand surgeon who combines his history taking with a drawing of the hand in question. By drawing his subject in detail, he is compelled to truly examine and record every square millimetre. He must look, not just see.

For many surgeons such superficial visual inspection is not so relevant, with the problem at hand buried inches deep beyond bone, muscle, or fascia. However, Sammut makes the very good point: “Just as drawing is about “seeing” more than about execution, so is surgery about listening, diagnosing... Surgery is primarily an intellectual, not a technical, exercise.” Perhaps this is the key message and the key connection between art and surgery.

Mark Hughes

Director, eoSurgical 

Clinical Lecturer in Neurosurgery, University of Edinburgh

Email: mark.hughes@eosurgical.com

Twitter: @eosurgical