Dental Students Explore Philly

By: Katherine Hilton, Class of 2021

As I walk through the familiar halls of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I am once again comforted by the wide open Great Stair Hall, the endless corridors, and the lightness of an afternoon break from my studies. First, I head to the second floor, where I give a nod to Diana as she balances on one foot, her arms tensed at the bow and head to the European and Asian Art displays. There, I wander through an ancient Indian temple, Chinese palace, and even a Japanese Teahouse set so peacefully amid a garden. Next, I back track, tracing my way through the Arms and Armor collection, my recent experiences with waxes, amalgam, and composite fully appreciating the intricate decorations on the breastplates and shields. (My own hand skills could use a little more work 😉 )

Next, I make my way back downstairs to the European Art (1850-1900) where I bask in the soft strokes and pastels of the impressionists and others of their time. Degas’ ballerinas, Mary Cassatt’s smiling women and children, and even Monet’s water lilies welcome me with their beauty, texture, and emotion. Not only do these paintings and the countless others in the various other wings of the museum remind me of my own call to use my skills to enhance health and aesthetics, but also the beauty and peace of these faces and scenes remind me of the importance of helping our patients maintain good oral health so they can get back to the things that make life worth living. With a sigh of relief I press on.

The Gross Clinic and the Agnew Clinic

Finally, tucked deep in the American Art wing of the museum are two famous paintings that reflect significant changes in our understanding of disease and sanitation. The first, completed by painter Thomas Eakins in 1875 shows renowned professor and surgeon Dr. Samuel Gross surrounded by doctors and medical students of Thomas Jefferson Medical College as he conducts a novel surgical treatment of bone infections. Almost a decade and a half later in 1889, Eakins again painted a surgery – this time that of Dr. D. Hayes Agnew conducting a mastectomy in front of students of the surgical theatre at the University of Pennsylvania. The two paintings stand in sharp relief as snapshots of their respective times. The first is dark, chaotic, and with little understanding or regard to contamination or sterilization, but the second is more neat and organized with a clean white operatory field and gowns, sterilized instruments, and even a female nurse assisting the procedure.

This change in understanding of infection and sanitation demonstrates a small piece of the progress we’ve made in the medical field over the last one hundred years. Once again I’m reminded of dentistry– of the lifelong learning and adaptation of our methods as well as the compassionate care and obligation to serve our patients as best we can.

My visit to the museum has been at once soothing and educational. Not only do these paintings demonstrate an important historical lesson for dental students today, but they also inspire future generations to continue to pursue best practices and cutting edge treatment for our patients. Perhaps we can contribute our own masterworks in somewhat smaller, but not unimportant ways. We too can bring a little color, style, and life of our own to our patients’ care so that they too can enjoy the beautiful things of life.




About the Author: Katherine Hilton is currently a D1 at Penn Dental Medicine and serves as a contributing editor for Penn ASDA.