Postures of Childhood: A Conversation

This blog post presents a discussion between Riva Lehrer, artist and anatomist and our “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500” festival guest curator, and Sander Gilman, distinguished professor of the liberal arts and sciences and professor of psychiatry at Emory University. Dr. Gilman will present “STAND UP STRAIGHT: Toward a History of the Science of Posture” at our October 18th festival. Register here.

Riva Lehrer:

Sander, when reading a scholar’s work, I often wonder whether it relates to personal experiences that set them on the path of intellectual obsession. For me, your work is so empathetic on the subject of difference it’s as if you’ve lived in the bodies of those you’ve written about. It’s fascinating to find out where that path started for you.

Riva Lehrer as a young child. Photo courtesy of Riva Lehrer.

Riva Lehrer as a young child. Photo courtesy of Riva Lehrer.

It seems that both of us were confronted with the problem of difference beginning in elementary school. Mine began right away. From kindergarten through eighth grade, it didn’t matter whether I was in math class, or English, or social studies; I knew at some point an aide would show up at the classroom door and call my name. All us kids knew this; twice an hour, someone would get pulled out of class and sent to the big open room on the third floor. There, we’d get down on one of the vinyl mats on the floor and start following orders.

These were our daily physical therapy sessions. Almost every student at Randall J. Condon School for Handicapped Children went through this same routine. Most of us had some variety of orthopedic impairment. Condon punctuated our academics with treatments for these perceived aberrations. My brothers were not disabled. They went to regular schools, where their growing bodies were exercised in gym class. This may have been wretched on its own terms but was at least somewhat communal, being arranged around games and team sports. Here, in PT, it was isolating.

Sander Gilman:

Why is gym always the horror! When you are in third grade gym is a horror in most cases any way—except for the two guys you always get chose first for ALL the teams — but when you wear high boots with VERY long laces that had to be cross tied all the way to the top and those boots had metal braces in them, even going into the locker room was a horror. Last one in (on purpose) and last one dressed. And then gym itself—jump, climb, run. But you run like a duck, the gym teacher shouted: STAND UP STRAIGHT!


A class at the Condon School. Photo courtesy of Riva Lehrer.

A class at the Condon School, with Riva Lehrer kneeling, second from left. Photo courtesy of Riva Lehrer. Click to enlarge

Well, we never played any games together. Whenever I showed up, there’d be 8 or 10 kids already in the PT suite, mired in separate islands of exercise mats, or on high tables that put them at arm’s level with the physical therapists. We half-ignored each other, though if someone let out a loud enough squawk that faux-privacy would end. As a rule, we were an obedient lot; splaying like starfishes on huge medicine balls, lifting our knees, doing wobbly push-ups, clutching squishy objects to build up our hand strength. In the 1960s, most disabled children weren’t even given basic academic instruction; Condon was unusual in its goals to give us some kind of mainstream education. But it was clear that in the battle between teaching disabled children how to read and pushing our bodies towards normalcy, the toss would always land us back on a vinyl mat.

In that room, every weakness and failure of our bodies was brought to our attention, and then set upon by the therapists. I was told I walked as if I had a broken leg, dragging it a half-step behind me.


In truth, a duck was not wrong. I waddled without my shoes and indeed with them. Standing was hard, running was difficult and the worst part of it was being always the one who was different. I could never quite stand up the way the gym teacher or others wanted me to. Now I know that all third graders KNOW that they are too different, too visible, too comical, but somehow I knew I really was odd. STAND UP STRAIGHT! Still haunts me.


Kids at Condon used to be called abnormal. Condon was a refuge of sortsat least we weren’t called the brutal names people used outside of school. The PT suite was the only place when I ever saw some of my friends out of their wheelchairs. If a kid could stand at all, the PTs made us watch ourselves walk. (it turned our most of my friends were taller than me; my assumption that I was one of the taller kids in class was an illusion). The room was divided by long metal poles that formed a narrow corridor ending in a tall mirror. I’d start at the far end, clutching the steel poles and trying to get my legs to regulate themselves as instructed. My reflection swayed and bounced as if I were on a ship in my own personal storm.

Riva Lehrer teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, circa 2008. Photo courtesy of Riva Lehrer.

Riva Lehrer teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, circa 2008. Photo courtesy of Riva Lehrer.

Until I stopped growing (ending up at 4′ 9″), and my spine was less curved, my limp was most the obvious sign of my disability. Thing was, my limp didn’t hurt. I didn’t even feel it. I only saw it in that tall mirror, where I watched myself list and sway, buffeted by those invisible shipboard winds. I seldom thought about the way I walked at all, but my doctors did, and operated. Nothing made much difference. A year after surgery, my limp always came back, tenacious as malaria.

I am not one who thinks that impairments should not be treated, or that bodies should not be given the chance to experience individual interpretations of health. But health cannot take its bearings from the polestar of normal. Bodies should be supported and encouraged according to specific, idiosyncratic parameters. What was missing from those well-meaning treatments at Condon was any pleasure in the body itself. These were the bodies we’d had at birth. According to our parents, teachers, and doctors, we’d come ashore in broken vessels.

For us, posture regulation, gait repair, and physical therapy rested on a bedrock of shame. We were not given the option of simply loving our bodies as-is, and exercising those bodies out of delight and wonder for what our bodies could do.


The thing is that that sense of being odd never leaves you as, perhaps, we never stop being third graders when we look deep into our souls. When I started my new project on the history and meaning of posture, the title seemed obvious: STAND UP STRAIGHT! We all write autobiographies, even those who avoid writing autobiographies. That is true of artists as well as scholars.


Our early lives taught us both that crooked is a posture that tilts your head and gives you a most unexpected view of the world.

Global Celebrations of Vesalius’s 500th Birthday

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

From the frontispiece of Vesalius’ Fabrica.

Not in New York? Plan a trip and attend our “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500” Festival on October 18! You can read our guest curator Riva Lehrer’s thoughts on the Festival here, and get a sneak peak of a virtual dissection demonstration by Kriota Willberg; and Brandy Schillace on Naissance Macabre; as well as more information about Vesalius and his Fabrica. Keep an eye out for more Vesalius 500 guest posts to come.

But, much as we’d like to see you here on October 18, you don’t have to be in New York to celebrate Vesalius’ 500th birthday.

We always welcome visitors to make an appointment to visit our rare book reading room and examine our copies of the Fabrica and its companion volume, the Epitome (in addition to the rest of our collection). Those elsewhere can find beautiful colored digital versions of the Fabrica from the University of Basel Library and the Epitome at University of Cambridge Library’s digital library. The publishers of the new English language edition of the Fabrica also have some wonderful material online.

In addition, there are multiple birthday celebrations for Vesalius across the globe this year. Travelers can visit Leuven for the Unravelling the Body. The Theatre of Anatomy at the Leuven Museum, or the international conference Towards the Authority of Vesalius: Representations of the Human Body in Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Dec 3–5); join the Vesalius Continuum Conference on Zakynthos, the Ionian Island on which Vesalius died (Sept 4–8 ); visit Down to the Bones: Celebrating 500 Years of Innovation (Jul 11–Oct 9) at the University of Utah libraries; see Discovering the Human Body at Anatomical Museum in Basel, as well as the only existing skeleton known to have been dissected by Vesalius (Sept 12–Mar 2015) and explore Vesalius and His Worlds: Medical Illustration during the Renaissance at the Huntington library (Dec 12–13). Vesalius was born on Dec 31, 1514; if the events of 2014 were not enough, keep an eye out for the St. Louis meeting celebrating Vesalius in 2015 (Feb 26-28). (Apologies to anyone whose event we’ve missed! The Karger Fabrica site has a great, and constantly updated list of Vesalius 500 events.)

The Fabrica of Andreas Vesalius: Object of the Month

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

This year we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the birth of Andreas Vesalius with our fall festival, “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500” on October 18. So much has been written on the Fabrica and its importance that it can be difficult to know where to begin. Why do Vesalius and his work remain so important to contemporary scholarship and anatomical study? The answer lies in his first and most famous book, De humani corporis fabrica. The title is translated as On the Fabric of the Human Body, although the “fabrica” in the original title can be best understood in terms of “craft”, “workings,” or “fabrication.”1 In other words, in this book Vesalius is interested in the functions of the body as a living system. Seven “books,” or sections, lay out the different systems and functions of the body, beginning with bones and ligaments and ending with the brain and sensory organs.

The frontispiece to the 1543 Fabrica in our collection.

The frontispiece to the 1543 Fabrica in our collection. Click to enlarge.

As the frontispiece makes clear, Vesalius wanted the Fabrica to demonstrate the importance of reviving hands-on anatomy as central to medical knowledge and practice. The Fabrica was a landmark publication, representing a turning point in the European understanding of the body and a new level of beauty and accuracy in its depiction in anatomical texts. At the time of its publication in 1543, Vesalius was a professor at the University of Padua, one of Europe’s best known medical schools. Only 28, Vesalius came from a long line of physicians. Like many of his forebears, he subsequently entered the service of the Imperial Court of Charles V, to whom he dedicated the Fabrica. He worked closely with his printers, wood carvers, and artists to ensure the accuracy and beauty of the over 300 woodblock images in the book.2 The Fabrica was exceptional in terms of both production and content, and its iconography, principles, and pedagogical approach were rapidly incorporated into medical thinking and teaching.

While the Fabrica is now remembered as the point at which a new, “modern” emphasis on direct observation and experimentation replaced deference to ancient authorities, Vesalius was careful to ensure that his erudition in the classical tradition was on display. Quotations of Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew texts point both to his determination to show the breadth of his knowledge and to the expertise of his typesetters. Vesalius used such authorities to place himself in an established tradition, even as he questioned aspects of accepted Galenic thought.

The frontispiece to the 1555 Fabrica in our collection. Click to enlarge.

The frontispiece to the 1555 Fabrica in our collection. Click to enlarge.

Along with his systematic exploration of all aspects of human anatomy, Vesalius’s demonstration that authorities such as Galen had made errors in their claims about human anatomy (in part due to reliance on animal dissection) was one reason the book rapidly assumed such extraordinary significance (although not universal acceptance). Despite its detractors, the Fabrica had an immediate impact; even with Vesalius’ best efforts, it was plagiarized and copied throughout Europe.3

Covers of the two Fabricas in our collection. The 1543 volume, left, has alum-tawed pigskin over wooden boards with elaborate decorative tooling and stamped designs and two brass fore-edge clasps. The 1555 edition, right, is bound in a contemporary parchment binding over stiff pasteboards with a single panel stamp. Click to enlarge.

Covers of two Fabricas in our collection. The 1543 volume, left, has alum-tawed pigskin over wooden boards with elaborate decorative tooling and stamped designs and two brass fore-edge clasps. The 1555 edition, right, is bound in a contemporary parchment binding over stiff pasteboards with a single panel stamp. Click to enlarge.

We are in the enviable position of owning multiple copies of the Fabrica as well as its companion piece the Epitome, a briefer volume designed for students with enlarged illustrations to aid the identification of individual features. In addition, we also hold multiple copies of the Icones Anatomicae, an extraordinary 20th-century artifact created in 1934 by The New York Academy of Medicine and the University of Munich, using the original 1543 wood blocks to reproduce illustrations from the Fabrica and Epitome (this was the last time images were taken from the woodblocks; returned to Munich, they were subsequently destroyed by Allied bombing during WWII). All of these volumes will be available to view at the festival on October 18. You will also be able to learn more about Vesalius and his work: Daniel Garrison will discuss translating the Fabrica for the new English-language edition, Arlene Shaner will explore the story of the Icones Anatomicae, and Drs. Jeff Levine and Michael Nevins will provide a guide to the possible stories hidden in the changes made to the Fabrica frontispiece between the first and second editions.


1. Harvey Cushing, A Bio-Bibliography of Andreas Vesalius (New York, Schuman’s, 1943), p73; Daniel Garrison, “Why Did Vesalius Title His Anatomical Atlas “The Fabric of the Human Body”?”

2. The identity of the artist responsible for the wood blocks remains unclear, although many have argued that Jan Stephan Calcar, a student of Titian, was responsible. See Vivian Nutton’s introduction at

3. More details about the life and impact of Vesalius can be found online in Vivian Nutton’s introduction and other essays at Northwestern’s Annotated Vesalius project: and in C. O’Malley, Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, 1514-1564 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964).

Guest curator Riva Lehrer on Vesalius 500

Our “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500” festival guest curator, artist and anatomist Riva Lehrer, describes some of her thinking about bodies, anatomy and art.

In 1543, when Andreas Vesalius published his De humani corporis fabrica (On the fabric of the human body) many contemporaries refused to accept his results. They contradicted canonical texts passed down over millennia: belief and expectation trumped direct experience and observation.

It’s easy to smile condescendingly at such pig-headedness. Yet we can scarcely look in the mirror without being caught in a fog of distortion. Every day we’re overloaded with information about how we should look and how our bodies should work. There are still plenty of ways in which our biases form medicine, and medicine, in turn, forms us.

"Circle Stories #4: Riva Lehrer" 1998  self portrait

“Circle Stories #4: Riva Lehrer” (1998).

I was born with visible disabilities. My body has always been seen as lacking, in need of correction, and medically unacceptable. My parents and doctors pushed me to have countless procedures to render it more “normal” as well as more systemically functional. These were two different streams of anxiety—how I worked and how I looked— yet they became inextricably woven together. My life in the hospital gave me a tremendously intimate view of medicine, as does the fact that I come from a family of doctors, nurses, and pharmacists. It gave me an acute awareness of how medical choices control and shape our bodies.

I first studied anatomy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later at the University of Illinois at Chicago, as a visiting artist in the cadaver lab. I often think about what my first anatomy professor told me, many years ago. She remarked that when she was a child, people grew into their original faces. Whatever oddities they were born with formed what they looked like, year after year. Faces were hard-won and unique. But modern dentistry, nutrition, grooming—all the large and small interventions of medicine—made people look much more alike than they did sixty years ago.

In the 21st century, medicine is not just about the “correction” of significant impairments; personal perfectibility is as much the point of modern medicine as the curing of significant diseases. We view our bodies as lifetime fixer-upper projects.

Yet, it’s that very fluidity that opens profound questions about the identities our bodies express. Technologies such as radical cosmetic surgery, cyborgian interfaces, and gender reassignment procedures raise and complicate our expectations. Medicine offers new options if the inside of our bodies does not match the appearance of the outside. We live in a state of wild restlessness, trying to see and feel who we are. We see chimeras of possibility.

"At 54" Riva Lehrer 2012 self portrait

“At 54” by Riva Lehrer (2012).

My body was not normalized through all my surgeries; yet the original body I had would not have lived. It’s been changed so many times that I can’t even guess at what it would have been. My own mutability has given me a deep interest in the two-way relationship between one’s body and the course of a life.

I teach anatomy for artists at the School of the Art Institute and am a visiting artist in Medical Humanities at Northwestern University. My studio practice focuses on the intersection of the physical self and biography. I interview people in depth about the interweaving of their bodies and their stories. These interviews become narrative portraits, as I try to understand what can be known about a life in a single portrait image.

Join us as we explore the role of anatomy in identity formation through our celebration of the 500th anniversary of Vesalius’ birth. We’ve invited artists, performers, scholars, and historians to help us ask how our imaginations form our living flesh. Let’s all look in the mirror and ask, what are we really seeing, and what do we believe we see?

Some of the issues our speakers will explore include:

""Chase Joynt" by Riva Lehrer and Chase Joynt 2014

“”Chase Joynt” by Riva Lehrer and Chase Joynt (2014).

—How do we decide what is “lifesaving” and what is “elective” surgery when it comes to identity? Transgender performer Chase Joynt questions what it means to save a life, and how his dealings with the medical establishment led him to question such choices.

—How many of us were raised with the constant imprecation to stand up straight? Sander Gilman peers into the use of posture lessons in public schools to control the American body.

—Artist Steven Assael creates dramatic portraits of New Yorkers, from street performers to elderly eccentrics. His work shows us how identity travels from the inner self to the outer shell.  Assael is a long-time professor at New York’s School of Visual Arts, one of the last bastions of serious anatomical study in the U.S.

—Famed choreographer Heidi Latsky will discuss GIMP and how she creates dance for performers with a range of movements and morphologies. A performance and film excerpt bring us into the innovative strategies used by the GIMP collective.

—Many contemporary artists use anatomy in investigations of identity and formal exploration. Curator Ann Fox will present images from an international roster of artists. She will be joined by Taiwanese artist Sandie Yi, who will show work that deals with the intense difficulties of having a physically different body in China.

"Coloring Book" Riva Lehrer 2012

“Coloring Book” by Riva Lehrer (2012).

Graphic Medicine is a consortium of comics artists who explore medicine from the standpoint of doctor, nurse, patient and family member. The founders of Graphic Medicine, MK Czerwiec and Ian Williams, will discuss how the vulnerable body is rendered in comics form. Comics allow artists to move from the inside of the body to the outside in seamless transitions, to weave together objective perspectives and highly personal, subjective experiences.

Celebrate Andreas Vesalius’s 500th Birthday With Us on October 18

On October 18, our second-annual Festival for Medical History and the Arts, “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500” will celebrate the 500th birthday of anatomist Andreas Vesalius.

Vesalius’ groundbreaking De humani corporis fabrica (The Fabric of the Human Body) of 1543 is a key Renaissance text, one that profoundly changed medical training, anatomical knowledge, and artistic representations of the body, an influence that has persisted over the centuries. Our Festival is one of a global series of celebrations of his legacy.

Our day-long event will explore the intertwined histories of art and anatomy, illustration and medicine, performance and the body, body snatching and dissection, identity and intersexuality, disability and representation, and contemporary visual arts and the body. Speakers, performers, and artists will be joined by anatomical cartoonists, 3D printing demonstrations, workshops, and more. Artist and anatomist Riva Lehrer will be our guest curator. Speakers and presenters will include Daniel Garrison, Steven Assael, Sander Gilman, Brandy Schillace, Lisa Rosner, Ann Fabian, Bill HayesMichael Sappol, Chase JoyntProof X, and  Kriota Willberg (look for a full list of speakers later this summer).

Follow our blog over the summer for guest posts from Festival participants and more on the wonderful Vesalius holdings in our collection.




Marijuana Regulation: The LaGuardia Report at 70 (Item of the Month)

By Paul Theerman, Associate Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

Medical and recreational marijuana regulation is undergoing a sea change right now, the reworking of a drug regulation regime that goes back at least 75 years. Debates about the drug are not new, however; the New York Academy of Medicine found itself in the middle of the political discussion back in the 1930s and 40s and is now taking a look at this history.

For a hundred years, from the published attestation of the medical use of Cannabis by William Brooke O’Shaughnessy in 1839, medical marijuana use increased and came more and more under medical regulation.  Discussions around regulation usually sounded two concerns: first, that the material be unadulterated and eventually physician-prescribed, and second, that potential benefits could be seen to outweigh harms. For from the beginning, many demonized marijuana use; early on, some went so far as to lump it in with opiates and their abuse.

By 1930, the United States established the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, with increased central control as the goal and Harry J. Anslinger as the willing head. In 1937, over the objections of the American Medical Association, he had pushed through the Marihuana Tax Act. An indirect means of control—as the state governments had most authority to control medicine and drugs directly—it was in fact very effective in criminalizing marijuana. Imposing annual licensing fees on producers and prescribers, it also called for a transfer fee of $1.00 per ounce to registered users, such as physicians, but $100.00 per ounce to unregistered ones—the vast majority. This tax structure was laid down in an era when average American incomes were about $2,000 a year. And indeed, $2,000 was the amount of the fine that could be imposed, along with up to five years in jail, with seizure of the drug as well. The first dealer convicted under the act received a sentence of four years in Leavenworth Penitentiary!

The title page of The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York.

The title page of The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York.

New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was skeptical of the reasons behind this stringent control. In 1938, he commissioned a report from the New York Academy of Medicine on marijuana use. With the study supported by the Commonwealth Fund, the Friedsam Foundation, and the New York Foundation, an expert panel of researchers considered “The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York” (as their report was ultimately titled) from the viewpoint of sociology, psychology, medicine, and pharmacology. Their work continued for six years.

The report ran 220 pages, and La Guardia’s own foreword summarized the results:

I am glad that the sociological, psychological, and medical ills commonly attributed to marihuana have been found to be exaggerated insofar as the City of New York is concerned. I hasten to point out, however, that the findings are to be interpreted only as a reassuring report of progress and not as encouragement to indulgence[!]

Anslinger was furious and denounced the report, and, as painstaking and factual as it was, it had little effect on marijuana decriminalization. Eventually, the Supreme Court found the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 unconstitutional on grounds of self-incrimination, in a suit raised by Timothy Leary in 1969. The next year, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which placed marijuana in Schedule I, the most highly controlled category, used for drugs that have no currently accepted medical use and are considered liable for abuse even under medical supervision. It remains there today.

On May 1 and 2, the New York Academy of Medicine, partnering with the Drug Policy Alliance, is mounting a day-and-a-half-long conference, “Marijuana & Drug Policy Reform in New York—the LaGuardia Report at 70.” Historians and drug policy experts will gather to consider the report and its effects, look at the “drug wars” over the last century, and survey the policy landscape of the near future. Please join us; the conference is free. View the full schedule and participant information. Register here.

Wrapping Up Our Performing Medicine Festival

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

Thanks to everyone who joined us on Saturday, April 5 for our Performing Medicine Festival, celebrating the intersections of music, dance, and theater with health and medicine.

Dr. Daniel Caplivski, center, and medical musicians from Mount Sinai. Photo: Charles Manley.

Dr. Daniel Caplivski, center, and medical musicians from Mount Sinai. Photo: Charles Manley.

In the morning, medical musicians from Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine demonstrated how chamber music and jazz can improve medical students’ and physicians’ abilities to listen to their patients.

Then, Dr. Richard Kogan, clinical professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and artistic director of the Weill Cornell Music and Medicine Program, demonstrated his virtuosity as a pianist and physician. He explored the mental life of Robert Schumann with an extraordinary performance of “Carnaval” and incisive commentary on historical understandings of the connections between madness, creativity, and genius.

Dr. Richard Kogan. Photo: Charles Manley.

Dr. Richard Kogan. Photo: Charles Manley.

The afternoon focused on the patient experience, beginning with Brian Lobel’s humorous and touching performance about his changing responses to his experiences as a cancer patient, cancer survivor, performer, and educator, and featuring his prowess with a hula hoop. Then David Leventhal and Pamela Quinn of Dance for PD® and PD Movement Lab explored how dance can tell stories about health, identity, and illness and help people with Parkinson’s find community, beauty, and movement.

Pamela Quinn and David Leventhal of Dance for PD. Photo: Charles Manley.

Pamela Quinn and David Leventhal of Dance for PD®. Photo: Charles Manley.

The day ended with the performers in discussion with Dr. Danielle Ofri, editor-in-chief of the Bellevue Literary Review, with topics ranging from the connections between physicians and music to questions about how to embed the arts in hospitals.

Throughout the day, behind-the-scenes tours introduced visitors to the work of our book and paper conservators and to collection highlights with a musical theme.

Save the date! On October 18, we will hold our second-annual Festival of Medical History and the Arts, this time in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the birth of anatomist Andreas Vesalius. The day will be another extravaganza of lectures, performances, workshops, and demonstrations exploring art, anatomy, and the body. Keep an eye out for updates and details over the summer.             

View more photographs from the day-long event on our Facebook page.

Welcome to Performing Medicine

Header for Performing Medicine FestivalOur spring 2014 festival, Performing Medicinetakes place tomorrow, April 5, 2014, from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 the New York Academy of Medicine. We will explore the interrelationships of medicine, health, and the performing arts at this day-long festival of actors, dancers, doctors, and musicians. Register here through today, April 4, for reduced admission.

Performers will include Dr. Richard Kogan on the mental life of famous composers; Brian Lobel and his comedic adventures as a cancer patient; David Leventhal and Pamela Quinn on dance and Parkinson’s disease with DANCE FOR PD® from Mark Morris Dance Group/Brooklyn Parkinson Group; the medical musicians of Mount Sinai on the art of listening; and musical interludes from Weill Cornell’s Music and Medicine Initiative.

Throughout the day there will be guided behind-the-scenes tours of our Dr.s Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room and Gladys Brooks Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory. Spaces are limited to 20 people per tour; make sure to get your tickets soon!

This is the first of two festivals in 2014 exploring the connections between medicine, health, and the performing and visual arts. In the fall our main festival, Vesalius 500: Art and the Body, will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Andreas Vesalius and the impact of his De Humani Corporis Fabrica or The Fabric of the Human Body. Like our 2013 festival, the day will feature multiple strands of programs, performances, workshops and interactive events.

BALL & Other Funny Stories About Cancer

This guest blog is an excerpt from the ending of BALL & Other Funny Stories About Cancer, a 70-minute stage performance by Brian Lobel about illness and the changing body over time originally produced in 2003.

This is one of several posts leading up to our day-long Performing Medicine Festival on April 5, 2014, which will explore the interrelationships of medicine, health, and the performing arts. Brian Lobel will perform this and four other monologues at the event. Register for the festival here.

By Brian Lobel

Brian Lobel

Brian Lobel

But what do I win? Lance Armstrong got the Tour De France, speaking gigs, and a ghost writer named Sally Jenkins (who I’m pretty sure never had testicular cancer), everyone else gets all this wisdom and depth that only derive from cancer, and what do I get? If I wasn’t going to become a better person because of all of those procedures then I sure as hell better win some kind of competition.


Competition. I need to be a hero. A role model. A SURVIVOR! I was actually considering sports, which I hadn’t done since my leg surgery in fourth grade. And, P.S., I still hate sports. I still hate to compete. Maybe ballroom dancing. Yeah, ballroom dance is going to become an Olympic sport. I dance. I have nice posture. Ooh, cancer survivor turned Olympic gold medalist —that would definitely make the ticker on CNN. Cancer survivor turned Olympic gold medalist—hah, not even Lance Armstrong has an Olympic gold medal! You can’t just survive cancer anymore. I know that I will never be the best role model or ideal survivor—but I will die trying.

July 1, 2002. Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Hospital Stem Cell Transplant Reunion Picnic. For all of my doctors and nurses a chance to reflect, to reunite with their former patients, and to share in the blessings of life, family, and community. I was three days finished with my stem-cell transplantation process and ready to kick some ass. The day was bright and sunny—as saccharine-sweet and sentimental as the day any cancer-survivor picnic should be. We all gathered in the park—about five miles from the Indianapolis Speedway—and we celebrated. We celebrated living.

The Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Hospital Stem Cell Transplant Reunion Picnic Hula Hoop Contest. For the kids. Eight un-ironic, cute little daughters of stem-cell transplant patients (who I’m sure were once upon a time frozen at International Cryogenics Incorporated) versus Brian Lobel, the world’s most competitive cancer survivor. A race to the finish, a fight to the death. Winner take all: a Coleman folding lawn chair. They were nothing. The world needed to see who the real cancer survivor turned hula hoop champion was…and so, I hula-d.

If it was a title that Lance Armstrong would never hold, I would hold it, and so I focused, intensely, passionately.

My hips began to twirl on their own and my mind began to flash back over the last eight months…boring, endless, depressing, near defeating…The support, the love, the compassion… The hundreds of people who didn’t make mention in this cancer story because they were beautiful, and perfect, and caring, and kind.

Most of the crap I hate about cancer is story after story after story about people supporting and loving each other with cancer. But I think that’s because, to me, it all seems so obvious. But I do feel indebted to those people. Even those people who said obscene things to me like “But thank God you have a good cancer” or “Your spirit will get you through it,” had enough love in their hearts to attempt to connect with me because they cared. Regardless of the messed up way they demonstrated their compassion. They supported me enough so that I could survive cancer and write a story about balls, tubes, and masturbation. I’m sure they’re proud. I thought of my parents, my family, my doctors, and my cohort in struggle. If there were words to describe them or the love I feel towards them, I would share those words with you. Everyone should experience even a little bit of that love in their life…

FOCUS BRIAN. DAMMIT. Don’t give in to that mushy, sentimental bull. You’ve got a match to win. The DJ spoke over the microphone. “OK girls, um, and boy. You’re doing great out there. Now it’s time to take a big step to your right.” DON’T FALL BRIAN. STAY UP, STAY FOCUSED. Four girls lost their hula hoops when they stepped to the right, but mine stayed snugly around my hips…and again my mind began to wander…

Eight months. Gone. Like that. One day, I was studying and living and dancing and hugging and experiencing, and then cancer. The path back to normalcy would be a long and tedious one. I could see years into the future and see how my scars still haunt me, how the smell of saline still reminds me of the hospital, and how people consistently wonder at my healthy appearance and comment, “You look so good, Brian,” thereby never allowing me to forget how sick I really was, and how much everyone around me worried.

“Are you training for the Tour de France?” “How’s the cycling going?” “Hey Brian, where’s your bike?!” Actual jokes, challenges…Well, what was I going to accomplish with my new lease on life? I felt the need to compete, to succeed, and to become this ideal cancer survivor that gets so so so much wisdom. Take my wisdom! Just give me eight months back! I want to be able to walk down the street without thinking Oh, don’t die now, Brian, that would be really uninspiring to everyone, and I want to be able to look at a pimple on my body and not think it’s a melanoma. I did not realize this was a life sentence.


Another girl down, and then there were three. I looked into their devil eyes, and saw straight into their struggle-free life. Ooh, how nice. How cute. As I instilled the fear of God into their eyes, their hula hoops soon followed suit and fell with perfect synchronicity. And then there was one. “OK you two…now let’s see you clap those hands.”


Brian Lobel at the hula hoop contest.

Brian Lobel competing in the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Hospital Stem Cell Transplant Reunion Picnic Hula Hoop Contest.

WIN BRIAN. CLAP. WIN. CLAP. WIN. And then it happened. I let go. Not of my hula hoop, which was still twirling with ease around my body, but of my drive to be something I wasn’t. I wasn’t someone who would let my life be defined by my illness. If cancer didn’t define who I was, then the pressure of Lance Armstrong-like success or masculinity would never even apply. I would never be Lance Armstrong. I would never be an athlete or a competitor, or an inspirational speaker. I would just be me. And that was, surprisingly, OK. It’s weird, as soon as I let go, my life became simpler, less complicated somehow. I was going to live for me, for Brian Lobel as I really was—quirky, awkward, unathletic, unmasculine, sexy-as-hell One-Ball Lobel—and I was happy.

And it fell. My hula hoop fell. What? That wasn’t supposed to happen. I was supposed to be victorious. I was supposed to learn to love myself and to learn that winning doesn’t matter, and then I was supposed to win anyway. That’s how it ends, right? I don’t win and I don’t die? What? I competed, I tried, and I failed. And I guess that’s me.

I sulked back, completely unsettled, to the picnic table. Where would I go from here? Where does anyone go from here? The DJ came over to whisper something in my ear. The little girl who won the hula hoop contest didn’t clap her hands, and was disqualified. I won. (The news sets in slowly.) The eight-year-old girl who won the hula hoop contest forgot to clap her hands. I won. That cheating, lying, eight-year-old who stole the hula hoop championship from me forgot to clap her hands. And so, the 2002 Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Hospital Stem Cell Transplant Reunion Picnic Hula Hoop Championship was won by Brian Lobel, by default. And that’s good enough for me. I don’t know what’s better, beating cancer or beating an eight-year-old girl in a hula hoop contest.


History of Medicine Roundtable & Reception

Calling all graduate students and early career professionals working in history of medicine and public health in the NY region. Please join us for an evening roundtable and reception to gather, mix, and collaborate on the evening of Thursday, April 10, 2014.

Our program will begin at 6 pm with an introduction to The New York Academy of Medicine’s Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health and its resources, followed by a series of short presentations by professors, archivists, and curators in the New York City area, and an open table discussion about access to materials and opportunities for collaboration.

Please join us afterward for a wine and cheese reception and a tour of the Academy and its collection. RSVP to 212-822-7301 or