May Hyman Lesser
Over the past three decades, May Lesser immersed herself in the field of medicine and created an incredible body of artwork chronicling the study and practice of medicine. Through her drawings, color etchings, and commentary, she has not only traced the evolutionary transformation of medical students into practicing physicians but has also successfully interwoven the human side of medical education and the clinical environment of medicine into her work.
Ms. Lesser had a strong association with the field of medicine throughout her life. The daughter, wife, and mother of physicians, she possessed a keen sense of the culture of medicine. As a child, her fascination with the beautiful steel engravings of her father’s anatomy, obstetrics, and surgery books led to a lifelong passion for drawing and etching. In 1967, she contacted the chairman of the anatomy department at the UCLA School of Medicine and requested permission to attend the anatomy labs in order to learn human bone and muscle anatomy better. In the introduction to her first book, The Art of Learning Medicine, she describes her initial experience at UCLA, which eventually led her to follow the Class of ’71 through four years of medical school.
Below, in her own words, Ms. Lesser describes her initial experiences in the world of art and and medicine:
I had gone to UCLA Medical School to study more anatomy, feeling that studying more structure would be helpful to me. The professor of anatomy allowed me to audit lectures, and then when he saw my first plate of the sagittal series from sections of the human head embedded in clear plastic in the hallway cases, and saw how beautiful and intricate I found the structures and how filled up I was with the material, he permitted me to come to the Saturday dissection laboratory with the students.
At first I was taken aback by the cadavers, but the strange light in the room and the change on the colors in the room because of this light, kept me going. It was a strong side light that silhouetted figures against the back of the room, and the tremendously strong arc lamps that were overhead seemed to make the bodies almost transparent in the tank bed. The lights allowed one to look straight down into the cadavers without one’s head casting shadows. Then I found myself studying the students moving into the large room like those nude models in Rodin’s studio. I watched them learn, trying to correlate the material from the schematic drawings in the Atlas with the seemingly confused arrangements in the bodies. The live ones and the still ones. The tension in this room. The sense of survival among the students. And such a different type of student from the average one. This was a very special group being trained to be sensitive to another human being. The students took me in and, helped by on the spot art lessons, began to be very comfortable around me: I relieved some of their tension from the cadaver, like the comic foil in Shakespeare’s plays. I was a part of that life and I appreciated how one human being affects another.
I spoke to Dr. Charles Sawyer after the first ten weeks of anatomy. The students were preparing for their first final, and I too wanted to show I had made some progress. I showed him some color engravings and we talked about the art of learning by the visual process. He liked the work and teasingly asked, “Would you like to take the final too?” I told him that I could draw “it,” but I could not spell “it”! I then asked if he could arrange for me to do some work over in obstetrics, as I had had experience in that department. (I have four children). He said that with artwork like mine, there should be no difficulty in arranging that. But he counteroffered, (pleased that I appreciated the beauty in anatomy as he did). “What about going all the way through medical school as an artist, with this class?” Here was a person who could take a chance on someone and bellow a spark into something really special.
It was a unique experience for me as an artist to identify with these young physicians-to-be and to learn from their professors. I watched operations with them that freshman year, when it was all I could do to watch, much less draw. There the whole world seemed condensed into that dark red wound. But I enjoyed the precision and skill of the surgeons and their own humanness. I was pleased to see the feeling response of one human being to another at a time when so many human beings die by another’s doing. Here, the prime concern of so many people was keeping one person alive.
Working alongside them I evolved as they did. I became more at ease with the material, could look at it more objectively and assimilate it into art more effectively. The artwork grew from still to active, from few colors to many, from isolated students to the large cohesive group. These graphics parallel the student’s movement from the cadaver to the live patient, and their silent hours over the dead body to their verbal interchange with the live human being. Perhaps my increased understanding of the students led to more fluidity in the latter work, while greater involvement with clinical medicine and its human problems, which are more within the scope of the onlooker, added depth.
As physiology followed anatomy, this study goes beyond the simple portrayal of the body. There is a loveliness in human beings helping another. As they came to understand the art of medicine, I was learning the role of medicine in my art: I was becoming aware of the universal truths all around me in the hospital setting. Beauty is inherent in the human cycle: birth, death, and human warmth and caring. “For mercy has a human heart, Pity a human face.”
Upon completing her four-year medical school experience, Ms. Lesser followed a number of these fledgling doctors through their internship and residency training at the LAC+USC Medical Center. She continued to document her impressions and experiences through her artwork and diaries. The resulting collection of powerful images and stories was entitled The Art of Caring and is available for viewing on the World Wide Web.
Years later, Ms. Lesser continued her artistic interpretation of the medical environment by publishing a second book, An Artist in the University Medical Center, based on her experience as a resident artist at the Tulane University Medical Center. Thus, what began over thirty years ago as a desire to study anatomy in more detail, evolved into a truly remarkable and sensitive portrait of medical study and practice.
May H. Lesser graduated with a B.F.A. degree from H. Sophie Newcomb College at Tulane University with honors in drawing. She earned a Master of Arts degree in painting from the University of Alabama and did post-graduate work at Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, UCLA, San Fernando Valley State College, and the University of Southern California.
Her color etchings have been featured on eleven covers of JAMA, and her work is exhibited in the permanent collections of the National Library of Medicine, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the University of North Carolina, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London among others. The Norris Medical Library is extremely pleased to have five of May Lesser’s prints in the library’s permanent collection. Located on the Plaza Level is The Surgeons, which is also the image used on the library’s Web homepage. Three other prints may be found on the Upper Level of the library, The Laboratory, J. C. Boileau Grant, M.D., andMonitor. An ink and pastel drawing donated to the library by Ms. Lesser in 1999 hangs in the Conference Room.
On July 24, 2001, May Lesser passed away at her home in New Orleans at the age of 74. Memorials may be made to the May Lesser Student Help Fund at Tulane University Health Sciences Center, 1430 Tulane Avenue, TW 34, New Orleans, LA 70112-2699.
For further information on her career and artwork, consult the following:
Lesser, May H. The Art of Learning Medicine. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts; 1974.
Norris Medical Library:
Humanities WZ 330 L638a 1974
Hist Med WZ330 L638a 1974
Lesser, May H. The Art of Caring.
Available at: http://www.tulane.edu/~lesser/
Lesser, May H. An Artist in the University Medical Center. New Orleans, LA: Tulane University Press; 1989.
Norris Medical Library:
Hist Med 330 L638aa 1989