Belonging in the Halls of Medicine

Jennifer E. Engen

Higginbotham’s portrait joins those of three other distinguished HMS alumnae—Raquel Cohen, MD ’49. Yeu-Tsu Margaret Lee, MD ’61, and Gina Moreno-John, MD ’94—that are also on display in the TMEC Student Study and Collaboration Center and online.

View The Women Before Me online exhibit

Cohen, who died in 2020, emigrated from Peru and worked in response to multiple Latin American natural disasters. She was an international leader in mental health interventions for survivors of disasters. Lee grew up in a war-torn country and became a surgical oncologist and colonel in the U.S. Army Corps. She has participated in more than 50 international medical missions treating U.S. soldiers and prisoners of war. Moreno-John is a first-generation Mexican American who deeply believes in supporting the underserved. She has dedicated her primary care clinical focus and research to the health of older Latino and African American patients.

The portraits were created by HMS graduate Pamela Chen, MD ’20, who noticed that the School’s artwork did not include many women or people of color. She was inspired to learn more about, and somehow recognize, the accomplished female physicians at HMS who preceded her.

“This project reminds me of the importance of art and our surroundings in advancing the concept of inclusivity,” Higginbotham said.

After researching distinguished alumnae, Chen interviewed those she selected for her portraits. She then published a paper in Academic Medicine about the project and gave School administrators permission to install the portraits on the HMS campus.

“I know for myself that painting these women and placing their portraits and biographies on the medical school walls has … inspired me to be bolder with my own ambitions, knowing that there have been so many others who have paved the way for me,” Chen wrote in the paper.

Acquiring and diversifying art

Increasing the inclusiveness of artwork at HMS is a project that Willy Lensch, former strategic advisor to the dean, helped lead for several years through the School’s Subcommittee on Artwork and Cultural Representations.

First, Lensch acquired two self-portraits of Chen that were installed in the dean’s office in 2019. Prior to that, Lensch assisted a student-led group in placing a bust of Alice Hamilton in the TMEC Atrium in 2018. Funded by a Dean’s Initiative grant, the School installed a portrait of William Augustus Hinton in the Waterhouse Room in 2019.

When the Hamilton sculpture was unveiled, it had been 16 years since four photographs of pathbreaking female HMS faculty members were installed in Gordon Hall’s Waterhouse Room in 2002.

Those included Avery along with Shirley Driscoll, emerita professor of pathology at HMS and director of women’s and perinatal pathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital; Elizabeth Hay, the Louis Foote Pfeiffer Professor of Embryology, the first female to be made a full professor in a preclinical department, and the chair of the Department of Anatomy (now cell biology) at HMS; and Lynne Reid, the S. Burt Wolbach Professor of Pathology, Emerita, at HMS and pathologist-in-chief at Boston Children’s.

“Diversifying the artwork project has been really important to me, the dean, and others,” said Lensch as Chen’s portraits were being installed. He acknowledged that much of HMS’ artwork had not been very inclusive—similar to many other educational institutions of the same age—because the artwork was “pretty historical in nature.”

But, he added, “This is how we make a better future. We don’t ignore our past. We look at it, and then we change our future.”

To increase diversity as the School reflects upon its history, Lensch said, the subcommittee was pledged to “holding up more of those mirrors” by acquiring more artwork.

“It’s really not about campus beautification. It’s about representation,” said Lensch. “And partnering with people to not just acquire more artwork, but to acquire the stories of the people.”

Pandemic pause

“The canvases were just about to be installed when COVID hit,” said Lensch.

The alumnae paintings sat in Lensch’s empty office in a deserted Gordan Hall for nearly 20 months. He said he was anxious about whether they would somehow become damaged from being left unattended.

“And so, every time I came to the campus—which wasn’t too often—I immediately came to my office to make sure the paintings were OK and then breathed a sigh of relief when they were fine.”

Installing the paintings this fall became a priority for Lensch before he left HMS to become Harvard’s associate provost for research.

The continuing pandemic meant there would be no in-person reception for the exhibit’s opening. Lensch remarked that even though there was no audience, no applause, no speeches, “the important part was there.”

“Our students can look and see themselves reflected back in the images there. And so that, of course, is the most important part.”

Seeing is belonging

The first student to see the “Women Before Me” exhibit was second-year Harvard School of Dental Medicine student Sapna Nath, who had arrived at the Student Study Center just after 7 a.m. on the day the portraits were being installed. 

Nath came upon Lensch working with Dan Callahan, construction manager at HMS, as they installed and leveled the portraits. Nath said it was a profound experience when she learned what the exhibit was about that morning.

“It’s very different than a lot of the existing paintings that are around campus. It was nice to see people of color, and women especially, portrayed on the walls as leaders in medicine and science,” Nath said.

Taking some extra time that morning to reflect on all four portraits, Nath said she saw patience, determination, vision, resilience, and passion in the subjects’ faces, as well as the creativity of the artist.

“I think these paintings show that you need to be adaptable and multidimensional, but that your diversity is valued and appreciated,” Nath said. “And, no matter who you are, there’s a place for you in this space to make a difference.”

“I like seeing this artwork in the study space, especially made by a student, because it really shows a changing discourse in medicine,” Nath added. “It’s a very encouraging sign to see someone who just graduated changing the conversation around health care and leadership … and how HMS is supporting these initiatives.”

“I’d like to think that at Harvard Medical School we’ve always been advocating for change,” said Higginbotham. “I’m so happy that 40 years later change has actually begun to occur.”

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