Portrait of a Cardiac Pioneer

The NY Times recently published a very interesting article about Dr. Helen Taussig and her infamous portrait…well maybe not infamous, because until now, I don’t think anyone was aware of the portrait commissioned by the doctors that worked and studied under her.


ny times, helen taussig
Original commissioned portrait of Dr. Helen Taussig by Jamie Wyeth on the left. Recommissioned portrait by another artist on the right.


Fifty years ago, Jamie Wyeth, son of the famous artist Andrew Wyeth, painted a portrait of Dr. Taussig, who conceived of the idea to rearrange vessels around the heart and lungs to improve delivery of oxygen to the lungs and help treat so-called “blue babies”. She convinced Dr. Alfred Blalock and his lab assistant, Vivien Thomas (played by Mos Def in the movie, Something the Lord Made), to apply her concept to actual surgical candidates, thus introducing the Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt.


The commissioned portrait was something of a debacle. When it was unveiled in 1964, according to Patricia Meisol of the NY Times article, “the reaction was a collective horrified gasp. The doctor who pulled off the cloth broke into tears.” After decades out of public view, the painting was requested for a retrospective next year of Jamie Wyeth’s work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.


While some describe the painting as witchy or evil, the description I’m drawn to is “haunting”. What is your opinion of the original commissioned work by Jamie Wyeth? Please comment below.



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