Robert L. Dickinson: Doctor and Artist

Today’s guest post is written by Rose Holz, Ph.D., historian of medicine and sexuality at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln where she serves as the Associate Director of the Women’s & Gender Studies Program and Director of Humanities in Medicine.  She is the author of The Birth Control Clinic in a Marketplace World (Rochester, 2012). Her current project investigates the intersection of medicine and art by way Dr. Robert L. Dickinson (1861-1950) — gynecologist, sexologist, and artist extraordinaire — and his prolific ten-year collaboration with fellow artist Abram Belskie (1907-1988). Not only did it yield in 1939 the hugely influential Birth Series sculptures but also hundreds of medical teaching models about women’s and men’s sexual anatomies. On Thursday, April 13, Rose will give her talk, “Art in the Service of Medical Education: The Robert L. Dickinson-Belskie Birth Series and the Use of Sculpture to Teach the Process of Human Development from Fertilization Through Delivery.” To read more about this lecture and to register, go HERE.

My interest in Dr. Robert L. Dickinson began many years ago when I was in graduate school, working on my Ph.D. in history and writing my dissertation on the history of birth control clinics in America. And, as has been the case with so many other scholars who have written about matters related to women, medicine, and sexuality in the twentieth century U.S., Dickinson made his brief cameo entrance into my story, though not without leaving behind a lasting impression.

For me it was the images — because, like me, Dickinson was compelled to color and draw. Early on, while pouring over Planned Parenthood records, I remember chuckling over a letter he had written to a contraceptive manufacturer complaining about the poor quality of one of their products, to which he then attached a drawing to illustrate his case.

Then there were the birth control manuals Dickinson wrote in the 1930s. Not only did he illustrate all the contraceptive methods then available, but he also offered birds-eye-view, architectural-style drawings to visualize how best to lay out gynecological clinics. More intriguingly still was what he included at the center of this architectural drawing, a tiny woman lying on the gynecological table with her legs spread wide open as the doctor conducted the physical exam.

IMG_4813

Pages from “Control of Contraception (2nd edition)” by Robert L. Dickinson.

As somebody who also loves small things—especially miniature worlds populated by miniature people—I could not help but find myself be smitten by this unusual man. However, at the time I had a different story to tell, a Ph.D. to defend, and a new job as a professor to pursue. And as the years passed, Dickinson slowly receded into the background.

IMG_1603

Drawings of the location of Embryo and size of Fetus. Source.

But Dickinson is not one to be denied, and that he has remained in obscurity for so long somehow explains to me why he has resurfaced—with a glorious vengeance—into my imagination. Indeed, he has made it clear to me that his story will be told; his skills as a doctor and artist properly recognized. And he has made it further clear that this story will begin with what he created in the twilight of his life: The 1939 Birth Series sculptures.

IMG_2449

Dickinson and Belskie’s “Sculptured Teaching Models Collection.” From the unprocessed Abram Belskie Papers, Belskie Museum, Closter, NJ.

Join us on Thursday, April 13 to learn more about Dr. Robert L. Dickinson and his Birth Series sculptures. To RSVP to this free lecture, click HERE.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s