rhea137 via austinkleon / posted on 14 May 2012


The chalk talks of Dr. Chevalier Jackson

When I was in the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, my eye was caught by a chalk drawing of a larynx by Dr. Chevalier Jackson. Jackson was a laryngologist who preserved more than 2,000 swallowed objects that he had removed (often without anesthesia!) from his patients. The collection is in a bunch of flat files at the Mutter.

Even more interesting to me, Dr. Jackson was trained as a visual artist, “known during his lifetime as much for his “chalk talks”—lively lectures accompanied by visual aid of colorful illustrative sketches that he would make on the spot—as for [foreign body] removal. Copies of the sketches became coveted collectors’ items among his students.” (Indeed: while Googling, I found an original drawing on sale on Etsy. Only $850!)

Jackson’s story is recalled in Mary Cappello’s Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration, and the Curious Doctor Who Extracted Them:

Those students who attended Jackson’s famous on-the-spot ambidextrous “chalk talks” went away dazzled and changed by the rare opportunity to bear witness, in a sense, to Jackson in repeated acts of first seeing and then remaking what he saw through his scopes in the forms of many-times-magnified chalk-pastel renderings. In this way, Jackson “worked up” the bodies that he treated, but not in the sense that medicine uses that phrase now. This was not a stats-gathering procedure, a collation, or a keeping of tabs. As if by magic, he brought the body’s insides to light, as light. Jackson’s hands were his imaging technology and they made for a unique pedagogical encounter irreducible to what we now think of as proplike visual “aids.” The Jacksonian chalk talks exerted a curiously hands-on seeing-feeling identification between student and teacher that was impossible to reproduce, for its emphasis was on medical practice not simply as a way of seeing bodies or acting upon bodies, ill or well, but of making bodies.

Imagine if we could see one of those chalk talks today! In another passage in Cappello’s book, she highlights the fact that art and science were woven together in Jackson’s practice:

Jackson said the only thing that kept him from pursuing art professionally was the fear of failure, starvation, and subsequent hunger. But Jackson’s art-making was not opposed to or exclusive of his medical practice. Jackson understood the manual dexterity required by painting to be in every way commensurate with the training of the hands and eyes called for by his endoscopic work.

Sounds like an amazing mind. I look forward to reading more about him in Swallow.

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