November 14, 2019
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‘The Art of Medical Diagnosis’ to be subject of MDI Science Café

Community Author: Stefanie Matteson
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MDI Biological Laboratory | Contributed
MDI Biological Laboratory | Contributed

BAR HARBOR — Physicians now have more diagnostic tools available than ever thanks to advances in diagnostic technology, but the clinical diagnosis of a patient’s condition remains an art that depends on developing observational skills in a process that begins in medical school and continues throughout a career in medicine.

While many solutions have been proposed to improve instruction in medical diagnosis, MDI Biological Laboratory President Hermann Haller, M.D., an internationally acclaimed nephrologist, is employing a unique approach with students at Hannover Medical School in Hanover, Germany, where he is a professor.

He uses masterpieces of art to teach medical students the art of medical diagnosis and to hone the observational skills that are critical to making accurate diagnoses. Artists throughout history have, often unwittingly, documented the physical symptoms of disease through depictions of their subjects.

Haller will talk about “diagnosing the canvas” in a July 22 MDI Science Café entitled “The Art of Medical Diagnosis: Training the Next Generation of Physicians and Scientists.” The café will take place at 5:30 p.m. at the Maine Center for Biomedical Innovation, MDI Biological Laboratory, 159 Old Bar Harbor Road, Salisbury Cove.

“The observation of the patient has taken a back seat in the medical school curriculum to the interpretation of diagnostic tests and biomedical and clinical data,” Haller said. “But a firm grounding in the art of observation is still needed to help the doctor put the knowledge offered by modern technologies into clinical perspective.”

Since realism was important in paintings from the Renaissance through the 19th century, the paintings from this period are especially valuable for teaching medical diagnosis, Haller said. In addition to providing medicine with insight into the history of a disease, they also provide a historical perspective on the era and on the painter.

The realistic portrayal of symptoms is especially common in Renaissance paintings. In Leonardo’s de Vinci‘s famous “Mona Lisa,” for instance, the yellow spot on her upper eyelid and a swelling on her hand indicate that she may have suffered from hyperlipidemia, a major risk factor for heart disease, Haller said.

Another example from the Renaissance is “The Allegory of Love” (a.k.a. “An Allegory with Venus and Cupid”) by Agnolo Bronzino. In what is often interpreted as a depiction of the wages of sin, the painting portrays figures who appear to be suffering from clinical symptoms common to people with chronic or untreated syphilis.

In his presentation, Haller will draw mostly on paintings from the Renaissance and baroque periods, including those by Bosch, Bruegel, da Vinci, della Francesca, Dürer, Ghirlandaio, Grünewald, Michelangelo, Rafael, Rembrandt and Velázquez.

“The audience will learn about the diseases depicted in these paintings, but they will also learn about famous painters,” Haller said. “This will be on opportunity for them to travel with me to museums all over the world on a journey into art history and medicine. As a result, they will look differently at such paintings in the future!”

Haller directs the department of nephrology and hypertension at Hannover Medical School in Hanover, Germany. He holds an undergraduate degree in art history and a medical degree from the Free University of Berlin and was a postdoctoral research fellow at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

MDI Science Cafés are offered in fulfillment of the institution’s mission to promote scientific literacy and increase public engagement with science. The popular events offer a chance to hear directly from speakers about trends in science. Short presentations delivered in everyday language are followed by lively, informal discussion.

For more information, please visit mdibl.org or call 207-288-3147.

About the MDI Biological Laboratory 

We are pioneering new approaches to regenerative medicine focused on developing drugs that slow age-related degenerative diseases and activate our natural ability to heal. Our unique approach has identified potential therapies that could revolutionize the treatment of heart disease, muscular dystrophy and more. Through the Maine Center for Biomedical Innovation, we are preparing students for 21st century careers and equipping entrepreneurs with the knowledge, skills and resources needed to turn discoveries into applications that improve human health and well-being. For more information, please visit mdibl.org.