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The Creative Scientist, the Scientific Creative


If you’re like me—or at least, the me from before my time here at Penn—you don’t tend to think about what your physician does in their off time. It just never occurred to me that doctors, who had chosen one of the most time-consuming and difficult professions available, would have the time or mental energy to invest in something different. I didn’t put much thought into the fact that the lady who operates on knees by day could also be performing Spanish guitar at open mic nights.

My experience here has, of course, taught me otherwise: Creative minds are everywhere. In retrospect, though, it’s a lesson I could have learned without such experience. History has shown us creativity and medicine make good bedfellows.

Take, for example, Penn’s own William Carlos Williams. We wrote about him last year in Penn Medicine magazine. Williams became an accomplished physician over a productive, lifelong career—but obviously, the first thing almost anybody would associate with him would be his poetry. His work in both fields stands as proof that it’s possible to cultivate the kind of mind that can ride that spectrum between creativity and the relatively rigid instruction of medicine.

Writers who happen to be physicians—or physicians who happen to be writers, depending—aren’t exactly the rarest of birds. Anton Chekhov, maybe one of the most well-regarded short story writers ever to pick up a pen, practiced medicine his whole life. The same guy who wrote “The Lady with the Dog” was also publishing studies about social medicine

Taking a slightly broader view, what about the contributions to medicine made by someone like Leonardo da Vinci? He was dissecting bodies and meticulously sketching anatomy five hundred years ago, providing not just visual representations of the human body but also detailed descriptions of its various functions. The Vitruvian Man, one of his most famous sketches, was created as part of these efforts. This analytic, scientific mind was—you probably don’t need to be reminded—also the one that produced the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper.

Bringing it back to the modern day, we’ve written on this very blog about the Penn Medicine orchestra, comprised of  more than 40 Penn physicians. There’s also Doctors Who Create, which is a creative community built by Penn Medicine student Vidya Viswanathan—as well as numerous examples of how music and medicine intertwine here that I wrote about late last year.

Creativity’s influence on those who practice medicine doesn’t stop there, though: There are plenty of individuals here whose creative minds work just as hard in the clinical setting. For instance, there’s Mandy Sauler, who carries the interesting title of Micropigmentation Specialist here at Penn Medicine, which is the fancy institutional way we say ‘tattoo artist.’ Sauler got her start about two decades ago in her mother’s tattoo shop, but today she uses her skills as an artist to help cancer patients who have undergone mastectomy or breast reconstruction. Her experience allows her to tattoo realistic areolas onto these women, giving them back something they’d lost.

We’ve also told the story of the Philadelphia Threshold Singers, who use their musical prowess to provide comfort to hospice patients.

In many ways, the link between the creative mind and the scientific mind appears to be stronger than ever. The world is more connected than ever before, and the creative minds that might otherwise stay relatively hidden are finding ways to connect with one another or express themselves to wider audiences—to exercise that creativity, and in doing so find new ways to integrate it with their careers.

The development of approaches like narrative medicine and the way it has been embraced here at Penn by physicians like Jason Karlawish, MD—an accomplished writer—and John H. Hansen-Flaschen, MD—an accomplished photographer—is, one might argue, indicative of momentum. Creativity, having long been embraced and exercised by scientific minds like Oppenheimer and Einstein, appears to be weaving its way into the very fabric of medical practice.

Chekhov once wrote in a letter to a Russian publisher, “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress.” He understood then, just as so many understood before and have understood since, that the human mind’s boundless complexity allows for boundless fascination—and myriad ways to intertwine those fascinations. For some physicians, creativity is more than just an outlet: It’s integral to their practice, and how they approach the monumental task of helping others.

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