In 1834, within a month of his graduation from the Medical Institution of Yale College and his ordination as a Presbyterian minister, Peter Parker departed for China as a medical missionary. A year after his arrival in Guangzhou he started a hospital to treat eye diseases and began a collaboration with portrait artist Lam Qua through which both men would leave their mark on medicine.
Parker went to China with the hope that by healing his patients’ bodies he would open the door to their souls. British and American patrons provided financial support for his Ophthalmic Hospital, over which he hung a sign that read in Chinese, “Hospital of Universal Love,” and which provided medical services at no charge. In addition to treating diseases of the eye, Parker also practiced surgery, including the removal of tumors. Today he is best known for introducing anesthesia—sulphuric ether—to China.
Down the street from Parker’s hospital was the studio of Lam Qua, who had learned the Western style of portraiture from George Chinnery, an English painter who had settled in China. Qua was the first Chinese portrait painter to be exhibited in the West, a master who made his name and his fortune painting the wealthy—both local and expatriate—of the city of Guangzhou and beyond. Parker hired him to document the disfiguring tumors that afflicted many of his patients. The two men worked together for close to 20 years.
Most of Qua’s subjects appear in profile or facing forward, draped in dark clothing and presenting a serene visage. Yet the subject matter is likely to evoke not serenity, but fascination and perhaps horror. One painting shows a man with a tumor roughly the size, shape, and positioning on the body of a cello being played, while many others depict women with grotesquely deformed breasts. Qua produced 114 paintings for Parker, 86 of which are housed in the Peter Parker Collection in the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, along with the physician’s case notes.
When Parker traveled to the United States to promote his mission, he brought these portraits with him. Ultimately, he left them to the Department of Pathology at the medical school, which in turn gave them to the Medical Historical Library. The paintings—oil on board—are now stored in vertical shelving in the historical library. Preservation librarian Sarah A. Burge, M.L.S., said that pulling the paintings out for viewing is hard on them and makes it impossible to view the collection as a whole. Still, she said, “Researchers come from all over the world to look at them. It’s a heavily used collection.”
With support from the Helen Melton Book Preservation Fund, efforts are under way to conserve not only the original paintings, but also Lam Qua’s preliminary watercolor studies on pith paper. “It’s like rice paper,” Burge said. “They’re extremely fragile, and in their current state they cannot be handled or viewed.”
Photographs of the paintings were recently placed online in order to make them accessible to a wider audience. Does the fact that the works can now be viewed electronically reduce the number of people coming to view them at the library? If anything, Burge said, she thinks their existence on the Web has spurred interest. “People find out that we have the collection,” she said, “and then they want to see it in person.”
The collection of oil paintings is available online at http://www.yale.med.edu/library/subjects/digital.html.