McGovern Hall of Medical History Receives Gift For Improvements
Before Artist Doris Appel locked herself away in her Boston barn she used as a studio, she intensely researched the medical luminaries she intended to sculpt. She consulted prominent medical historians and in one instance, she turned to a famous physicist who knew one of her subjects.
About a day or two later, Appel would emerge to reveal a finished statue made from a hardened clay slurry her husband, Dr. Bernard Appel, had helped her mix.
It was Dr. Appel who steered his wife’s keen interest in history toward medical history. The suggestion led to the discovery of a niche art form and close associations with famous scientists, including Albert Einstein and Sir Alexander Fleming. She turned to Einstein for advice before she created her statue of Marie Curie, a Polish physicist and chemist whose pioneering research on radioactivity twice earned her the Nobel Prize. It was evident Einstein was taken by Appel’s finished work of Curie when he wrote: “The statue characterizes this beautiful personality absolutely perfectly and helps me to retain fresh one of the most valuable memories in my life.”
Curie and other leading figures of medicine depicted by Doris Appel can be found in the John P. McGovern Hall of Medical History in UTMB’s Ashbel Smith Building. Some of the others include Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, who discovered X-rays, Joseph Lister, known for advancing sterile surgical techniques, and Louis Pasteur, known for discoveries of the principles of vaccination and pasteurization.
The McGovern Hall soon will undergo a significant upgrade that will elevate the existing presentation of the statues to more closely resemble a museum exhibit. Improved lighting, cleaning of the statues on a regular basis and a 22-inch TV that streams a video of Doris Appel at work in her studio are included in the plans. A plaque also will be added to honor Doris Appel’s daughter, Dr. Blossom Sanger, her husband, Dr. George Sanger for their contribution of more than $120,000. Their daughter Wendy McGuire and her husband, Dev Purkayaystha, also contributed to the project.
The upgrades should take about six months to complete.
“She admired those people,” Dr. Blossom Sanger said of the medical figures in her mother’s art. “They had incredible vision, incredible compassion.”
In a narration she recorded for the display, Doris Appel describes the statues as figures who represent “great ones in the fascinating story of medicine.” She goes on to say in her distinctive Boston accent: “The purpose of this project was to bring together, in one place, the great peaks in the history of medicine so that you who are now here can feel and visualize the vastness and the grandeur and the spirit of the heritage of modern medicine.”
The statues originally had been commissioned by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, but instead were displayed by the Smithsonian Institute. Later, Doris Appel agreed to Dr. John P. “Jack” McGovern’s offer of $15,000 to acquire her statues. In a 1980 letter, Dr. McGovern discussed the details of the agreement and in it he thanked her for their close, personal relationship through the years.
“You may be certain that these treasures will be placed in the very choicest place,” Dr. McGovern wrote, “where they can be admired through the years and serve their great teaching and artistic functions.”
Four years later, Dr. McGovern donated Doris Appel’s statues, which at that time, were worth an estimated $330,000, to UTMB. A second set of statues belongs to Boston University’s School of Medicine. Doris Appel, who died in 1995 at 91, created her statues to not only serve as teaching tools, but also to inspire, her daughter said. When she gave her speech about the stories behind the figures she created, Doris Appel, on more than one occasion, influenced some to pursue careers in medicine. One of them was her daughter, Dr. Sanger, who is now retired after a successful career as an anesthesiologist.
“She really inspired people. She inspired them to do better things, to make more of themselves than they could,” Dr. Sanger said. “It wasn’t about her. It was what she wanted you to get from those statues. These were men and women of vision. She wanted you to go ahead and do what you believe.”