A hospital removed historical portraits. Did it make the wrong call?

In June, a story circulated online about how Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, one of the most famous academic medical centers in the United States, and a major Harvard Medical School-affiliated institution, decided that it would take down physician portraits that were hanging in a popular and historic lecture theater.

The reason? Well, it was felt that the portraits were predominantly of white male physicians, who had been esteemed teachers and leaders of medicine over the decades. In today’s environment of wanting to promote inclusiveness and diversity, it was felt that these pictures were “the wrong message to send.”

After this story was made public (you can read the Boston Globe article), it was widely circulated online. I, myself, learned of the story when some physicians (also from major academic centers) started sharing the story on social media, predominantly feeling proud of Brigham’s decision.

This story piqued my interest. As somebody who is a keen reader of history, and also a physician, it actually disappointed me on a few different levels that our collective psyche and culture is moving in this direction. Of course, as an ethnic minority and person of color myself, I am always going to be for anything that promotes a culture of diversity and mutual respect. But there’s a right and a wrong way to go about progress, and the move that Brigham took, and the subsequent reaction of delight by so many educated people, surprised me a bit.

Over the years, since I was a student, I have always enjoyed walking through medical institutions and looking at the historical pictures. I find them both fascinating and also sometimes slightly amusing (especially the attire and solemn facial expressions!). I have never once felt intimidated or angry looking at a portrait, or felt like it hinders my own progress. On the contrary, I just smile at myself inside, and wonder what they would think now in today’s great and highly diversified environment. My own attitude and response would be to celebrate today’s more inclusive society by putting up new pictures (or statues) instead — but not tearing the old ones down. Heck, why not do something like put up a portrait of a distinguished modern-day woman physician of color, right next to them?

From a purely medical standpoint, these were fine physicians who made immense contributions to the field of medicine, many being called world pioneers in their respective fields. The education and progress of mankind has been a long and sometimes painful process. If you could find me evidence that these physicians were criminally flawed or controversial individuals, that’s another matter. But if the reason for removing them is based purely on not wanting “old white males” hanging on the walls, with the concern that it sends the wrong message, that may be a deeply flawed way of thinking. These distinguished individuals helped build the institutions we have today, and that shouldn’t be something to be ashamed about, or feel like it should be hidden away to suit our modern-day way of thinking. On the contrary, they should continue to be celebrated and revered, regardless of race or gender. Removing historical images and statues of people who have done nothing wrong, just because of concern about “sensitivities,” is in all actuality not too far off being the mirror image of how the Taliban thinks.

This also gets to a larger debate that we are currently grappling with in society. The history of most nations is difficult to look back upon. The trend, particularly for some of the younger generation, of wanting to judge history and historical characters by today’s standards and demand “perfection.” Unfortunately, we won’t find it in many places. Even America’s biggest hero, Abraham Lincoln, when one reads what he actually wrote, had some very controversial and odd views on societal structure and race. What other big names like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington said and did, is also well known. Such were the times until relatively recently.

This slope is a slippery one. The Pandora’s box is giant. Not only would you end up having issues with almost every single older institution, and person in every country who lived more than several decades ago, but you waste an awful lot of time too. Far more productive to just celebrate today’s progress and look forward instead.

Brigham, you may be a great hospital and school, but you made a disappointing call. As a temple of education, you should not be in the “let’s delete history” camp. You should be all about acknowledging and educating, and then building bridges to a better future. You should also be familiar with the age-old adage: “Those who seek to erase their history, are bound to one day repeat it.”

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author. He is the founder, DocSpeak Communications and co-founder, DocsDox. He blogs at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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