The Pharmaceutical Promotions collection: Education through Art

This post comes from Jordan Jedry, Student Archives Assistant in the Historical Collections & Archives.

A mid-20th century medical classroom/laboratory, during a lesson in human anatomy that involves cadavers. The image is focused and centered on an operating table, on which a nearly skinless cadaver is being examined by six doctors. Three of them are examining tendons on the cadaver’s right arm beside the upper right side of the operating table. A seated man across from them is reading a textbook, and appears to be delegating instructions or information to his three colleagues across the table. Beside the lower right side of the operating table (near the cadaver’s feet) is one seated man listening to a standing older doctor, presumably a teacher or mentor. In the background of the image, there are three men examining a cadaver on the upper left side of the image, as well as another group comprised of four men and women examining a cadaver in front of the classroom’s blackboard in the upper center portion of the background. The blackboard itself is being written on by one person, with two other people next to him watching him intently. Text under image reads “Anatomy lab...”
“Anatomy Lab.” By Frank M. Netter, approximately 1940s. Produced by Armour and Company.

Some of today’s biggest pharmaceutical leaders trace their history to single small laboratories or workshops during the 19th century. Others have come and gone through a convoluted series of mergers, acquisitions, and restructurings. Even in the times before pharmaceutical production ever became a formal “industry,” the contributions and lives of notable individuals in medical and pharmacological history have long been remembered as irrefutably changing the landscape of medicine and pharmacy forever.

When we think of pharmaceutical companies, we may default to present-day major players in pharmaceutical production, such as Pfizer or Abbott. But the histories of medicine and pharmacology go back hundreds—if not thousands—of years prior to the existence of these pharmaceutical monoliths. While there have been countless debates about pharmaceutical companies in recent years, these companies and their products have undeniably contributed to countless improvements to medicine and pharmacology over time.

Four men, one kneeling on the left in 14th-century English costume, and the other three on the right in 14th-century Scottish costume, in the middle of a surgical procedure. The man on the left (the surgeon) is kneeling in front of the seated man (the patient), who himself is situated between the two other men, standing behind and actively restraining the patient on each side. The patient's right leg is extended and being held by the surgeon. On the floor in front of the surgeon is an unknown surgical instrument, as well as a shallow bowl situated under the seated man’s extended leg as the surgeon makes an incision on the patient’s leg. The patient’s facial expression dramatically conveys pain felt from the procedure. Text under the image reads: “Peter Lowe 1550-1612. Founded the School of Medicine in Glasgow in 1599, and his ‘A Discourse of the Whole Art of Chyrurgery [Surgery]’ was the first adequate description in English of the best continental practice. In amputations he used the cautery to control hemorrhage if there was putrefaction, but in clean cases preferred the ligature, using ‘a needle with a strong thread knit with a double knot, tying a little of the flesh with the veins to make it hold the better.’
“Peter Lowe 1550-1612.” By Lejaren à Hiller, 1927. From Sutures in Ancient Surgery. Produced by Davis & Geck, Inc.
Mass-production of pharmaceutical products greatly increased in the 20th century as a direct result of an unprecedented demand from the two World Wars. Because of this, contemporary pharmaceutical companies were faced with the dilemma of setting themselves apart from their competitors while also reaching as broad of an audience as possible through concentrated mass-marketing efforts. But how could this be achieved in a reasonable and publicly-appealing way, short of developing more breakthrough pharmaceutical products?

Enter Thom, Hiller, and Netter, among other notable artists and illustrators. Their purpose? To reach a broader audience of doctors, pharmacists, and patients through impressive displays of artistic mastery and educational opportunity.

The recently processed Pharmaceutical Promotions collection represents nearly fifty years of educational graphic prints, magazine advertisement clippings, and reproductions of promotional portrait series that evidence the commissions made by these pharmaceutical organizations, and their subsequent proliferation to hospitals, doctors, and pharmacies in mid-20th century targeted marketing efforts. This was accomplished primarily through the commemoration of significant historical accomplishments in the medical and pharmaceutical disciplines in art, the glamorization of pharmaceutical product benefits in contemporary magazine advertisements, and the depiction of significant figures and relevant biographical information about them in the medical and pharmaceutical fields in contemporary publications, all of which are represented in some form in this collection.

Three figures standing together in front of a gray background—one man on the left, one woman on the right, and a young male child between them. The man in the blue toga on the left, Hippocrates, is in the process of examining the male child, and has his right hand on the child’s right side (over the ribcage), and his left hand resting on the child’s neck and left shoulder. The woman on the right in a red toga, presumably the young patient’s mother, appears to be listening intently as Hippocrates examines the young male patient, holding the child’s left hand with both of hers. The child between them is shirtless, and is listlessly staring ahead as the examination takes place. Text under image reads: “Hippocrates: Medicine Becomes a Science. Kindliness, concern, and love of the art of healing, all reflected by Hippocrates as he examines a young patient, are qualities that earned the great Greek physician (460-361 B.C.) the immortal title of ‘Father of Medicine.’
“Hippocrates: Medicine Becomes a Science.” By Robert A. Thom, 1958. From A History of Medicine in Pictures. Produced by Parke, Davis & Company.

The Pharmaceutical Promotions collection houses several promotional prints, advertisements, and visual materials from multiple pharmaceutical companies including: Ethicon, Inc.; Abbott Laboratories; Davis and Geck, Inc.; Burroughs Wellcome and Company; Parke, Davis and Company; Armour Laboratories; CIBA; Upjohn; and Wyeth, Inc., produced and distributed on a massive scale over the course of nearly fifty years. From Thom’s A History of Medicine in Pictures and A History of Pharmacy in Pictures to Hiller’s stunning Sutures in Ancient Surgery photograph series, some of these works have gone on to be displayed at the Art Institute in Chicago and Les Invalides in Paris, among other world-renowned museums and galleries.

Many of the works represented in this collection combine impressive visuals with an in-depth history of a significant figure’s life, the development of notable pharmacological products or medical technique, and depictions of different locales and practitioners of medicine and pharmacy across history. This collection is a valuable resource not only for those who wish to learn more about pharmaceutical marketing efforts, but to those who are generally interested to learn more about the broader histories of medicine and pharmacy in a uniquely visual way.