Before photography became the standard for capturing images of important anatomical findings, pathology departments hired specially trained illustrators to create visual materials for teaching and recording medical knowledge. One of the most gifted among them was Armin Bismark Hemberger, whose career at Yale spanned six decades.
Hemberger, who lived from 1896 to 1974, is the subject of new interest and may someday be featured in a documentary film and traveling exhibit.
A student of Max Brödel, who is widely regarded as the father of American medical illustration, Hemberger worked in the tradition of Vesalius, da Vinci and Dürer, combining artistic skill with a remarkable level of scientific accuracy to produce brilliant images in pen and ink, pencil, gouache and watercolor. Approximately 700 of these drawings are preserved in the illustration collection of the Department of Pathology.
“Hemberger was one of the best,” said Ranice W. Crosby, director emerita of the Department of Art as Applied to Medicine at Johns Hopkins, where Brödel’s papers are archived.
Born in Scranton, Pa., on April 1, 1896, Hemberger graduated from the Maryland Institute of Art and Design in Baltimore. In 1917, he was recruited by Milton C. Winternitz, M.D., as a medical illustrator for the New Haven Station of the Army Chemical Warfare Service. His drawings are in two classic monographs edited by Winternitz, Collected Studies on the Pathology of War Gas Poisoning and The Pathology of Influenza. Hemberger returned to Baltimore in 1920 for a year of study with Brödel before spending the remainder of his career at Yale. He retired in 1962.
In addition to his medical work, Hemberger painted landscapes and is represented in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
In 1987, during the construction of a new autopsy suite, faculty member Raymond Yesner, M.D., noticed two large filing cabinets that had been pushed into the old dissection room. “I was absolutely knocked over by what I saw—hundreds of Hemberger’s paintings and drawings stacked one on top of the other.” An effort to catalog the images began in earnest and steps to preserve the original works followed. Five years ago, Jon S. Morrow, Ph.D. ’74, M.D.’76, HS ’77, chair of the Department of Pathology, asked Katherine Henderson, the department’s photography and graphics manager, to begin digitizing the illustrations and transferring the original works into acid-free, archival containers. Working with Deborah Dillon, M.D.’92, a faculty member who provided annotation for many of the drawings, this task has now been largely completed.
Last year, Judith Hokanson Barbeau, a public relations consultant hired by the department, saw a stack of Hemberger’s art on a shelf and became interested in his life and career. She located the artist’s son in New Hampshire, where she examined Hemberger’s original watercolors, oils, woodcarvings and engravings. She later located and interviewed Hemberger’s former students and colleagues, recording information and personal remembrances.
Hemberger’s work has guided generations of medical students and physicians-in-training. One of them was Morrow, who said that the artist “had an incredible ability to summarize the essence of the anatomical findings of a given condition in a single illustration. Hemberger conveys more information about a disease process in a single drawing than a pathologist can assimilate by seeing a dozen examples in dissection.”
With the support of Yesner and Morrow, Barbeau hopes to make a film about Hemberger, as well as organize an accompanying touring exhibition of his work.