“Doctors love to play at diagnosis,” admitted Dr. Michael F. Marmor, a Stanford University ophthalmology professor and author of several books about artists and eyesight. Most physicians reserve their diagnoses for patients, but there is a subculture of medical professionals fascinated by the health problems of famous, dead artists—and how they affected their work.
As disciplines, art history and medicine share important similarities: Both fields require close observation and some guesswork, attracting practitioners who love a good puzzle. Recently, the two have become even more intertwined. Medical schools around the U.S. are increasingly incorporating art classes
into their programming, and research shows
that looking at artwork can help doctors improve their observation skills. This correlation might explain why some physicians have taken an interest in studying the lives and works of creative masters, aided by their special set of diagnostic skills.
Peer-reviewed medical journals are peppered with studies that posthumously diagnose the illnesses of artists, using data that ranges from medical records to, in rare cases, the artist’s physical remains. Most commonly, though, such medical connoisseurs turn to the deceased’s body of work for clues.
This might seem like an amusing sport, but Dr. Marmor warned that many doctors use flawed measurements and take their conclusions too far. “Artists have license to paint as they wish, so style is mutable and not necessarily an indication of disease,” he told Artsy. “Speculation is always fun, but not when it is presented as ‘evidence’ in scientific journals.” The seven published studies detailed below use an array of inventive methods to flesh out a fuller picture of artists’ physical health in an attempt to better understand their work.