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From art to medicine and back—how one physician pursued her dreams

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2009 - Winter


As a high school student in New Britain, Conn., Sophie Trent-Stevens, M.D. ’43, made up her mind to see and paint the far-flung places she saw in exotic landscape paintings at the local art museum. “I thought that if you were an artist you’d go out and see this magnificent scenery,” she said. A half-century later, after a prestigious medical career, she did.

While the 17-year-old knew that she wanted to become an artist, her mother had other ideas. “Artists starve. You can either be a teacher or be a nurse,” her mother told her. Neither option suited Trent-Stevens, so she decided to go to Brown University after a teacher told her she could take art classes while earning her degree there.

At Brown, though, she developed different ambitions. “Marie Curie was a hero at that time. … I wanted to be another Madame Curie,” she said. She spent a summer as an animal technician at a cancer research institute in Maine. Back at Brown, an advisor told her that if she wanted to make her mark in medicine, she ought to pursue an M.D. instead of a Ph.D.

During her years at the School of Medicine, the United States became involved in World War II. With servicemen falling ill in the South Pacific, Trent-Stevens decided to pursue tropical medicine. After an internship at Vanderbilt University, she went to the School of Tropical Medicine in Puerto Rico. “They had the mosquitoes, they had the germs, they had the bugs,” she said. Art became, for the moment, less important, though she sketched when she could—mostly skulls and patients—and occasionally painted with a mixture of watercolors and white shoe polish.

After a research fellowship in tropical diseases at the National Institutes of Health and a residency in internal medicine in Jacksonville, Fla., Trent-Stevens became chief of medicine at St. Thomas General Hospital in the U.S. Virgin Islands. For nine months, she traveled between St. Thomas and neighboring St. John by sailboat and made house calls on the backs of donkeys. She used an old Navy brig on St. Thomas as a quiet room for a violent patient. She remembers the scene of a suicide by hanging; no one had thought to cut the victim down, which might have saved him. And she remembers seeing a priest in full habit riding on the back of a donkey, with his Bible propped open on the beast’s neck. “You saw things that were so different from everyday life that you felt you were living in a dream,” she said. The vivid images have remained in her mind for decades.

Trent-Stevens returned to Connecticut in 1949 and pursued a career in internal medicine. She had a private practice as well as an associate professorship at the University of Connecticut, and she served as senior ward physician at a tuberculosis sanatorium in Norwich, the Meriden-Wallingford Hospital and the Veterans Affairs hospitals in Meriden and Newington. She was a founding member of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene and played important roles in the American Medical Women’s Association and the Pan-American Medical Women’s Alliance, among many other organizations.

Once she retired from medicine, though, Trent-Stevens returned to art. In 1982, at the age of 65, she earned a master’s degree in art from Central Connecticut State University. (She noticed that the young art students spent a lot of time seeking out free food at campus events, and noted, “My mother was right.”) She became a docent at the New Britain Museum of American Art—where she’d seen landscape paintings as a child—and published reproductions of her paintings in Connecticut Medicine, the magazine of the Connecticut State Medical Society.

And—at long last—she began to paint the faraway places of her childhood fantasies. She painted her former workplace, the stunningly beautiful island of St. Thomas. She traveled to Bora Bora and painted the Pacific island’s mountains and the fish she saw from a glass-bottomed boat. She painted tropical flowers in Hawaii, the Matterhorn in Europe and a harbor in Maine, where her interest in medicine began.

The large oils and acrylics adorn the walls of Trent-Stevens’ home in Meriden, which she and her late husband, Ronald Stevens, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, designed and built decades ago. Thanks to medicine, Sophie Trent-Stevens got her wish and became an artist, and she didn’t have to starve.