Like a detective seeking clues to a mystery, Susan Summerton, MD, meticulously investigates images of the human body, scanning its crevices to find evidence of something out of place — a tumor, a fracture, an infection.
With the training of a radiologist and the eye of a photographer, it wasn’t a surprise when scans of her patients began to reveal more than just abnormalities. She noticed that the crisscross of a brain’s optic nerves looked like the letter “X.” In an artery, she saw a “Y.” A knee joint replacement? An “A.”
It wasn’t long before she had collected every letter of the alphabet.
Now, Summerton, a radiologist at Pennsylvania Hospital and associate professor in the Perelman School of Medicine, has combined her love of anatomy and art. Her body of work features colorful graphic designs, which are inspired by the X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans that she has seen in the clinic and reassembled into one-of-a-kind works of art.
One piece, for example, spells out “Philadelphia” with X-rays of implants, bones, and organs. Above the city name is an image in likeness of the Liberty Bell — actually a rendering of a bladder with a large prostate gland.
A Change of Heart
Summerton’s artwork has complemented her medical career, allowing her to make connections with people from all around the world. In turn, her pieces enable the viewer — and her patients — to see an X-ray through her eyes: not a sterile representation of bones and organs, but something that reveals the beauty, humor, inspiration, and wonder within every human body.
“Everyone is scared when they’re sent for imaging. If you look at my work, and you can see an X-ray as art, it maybe takes some of the anxiety away,” she said.
Summerton never intended to be an artist – or even a radiologist. A lifelong Philadelphian, she attended medical school at Temple University, where she thought she’d train to become an orthopedic surgeon. However, during a rotation at Einstein Medical Center, she found herself spending most of her time in the Radiology Department. She loved the variety of specialists that radiologists interacted with and the diversity of medical cases that they were presented.
“How do I know if this is right for me?” Summerton asked the department chair.
“Do you like solving puzzles?” he asked.
“As a radiologist, we have the answer first, before the patient even knows. It’s a big responsibility,” she said.
Medicine Inspiring Art
In 2014, the Radiological Society of North America was celebrating its centennial anniversary, and it put a call out to its members to submit their most interesting or visually-appealing cases. The winner would be displayed at the society’s annual meeting in Chicago.
Summerton looked back at her file of letters that she had compiled over the previous 20 or so years, realizing that she had, in fact, collected the entire alphabet. She decided to use her scans to spell out the meeting’s slogan: “RSNA 100. A Century of Transforming Medicine.” Her creation didn’t receive enough votes to win, but the contest organizer called and told her they’d like to display her artwork as an honorable mention.
When she returned from the meeting, friends started making requests. “Can you write my name with your letters?” “What about my kids’ names?” “Can you make a gift for my doctor?”
Summerton realized her small file of scans had the potential to inspire many more pieces of art. She enrolled in a six-week course at the Wharton School, launched a website, and enlisted the help of a designer to re-create the scans that she has collected at the hospital. She began to sell her art at medical meetings, art shows, and even at an exhibition in London.
What continues to give her inspiration? Summerton says it is her devotion to her patients that informs her work as a radiologist, and, in turn, the artwork she creates.
“My art can comfort my patients at a time when they are feeling great uncertainty,” Summerton said. “My hope is that, perhaps, I can ease that uncertainty just a bit.”