How Surgeons Are Learning From The Hands Rodin Sculpted

Medical quirks immortalized in bronze

Auguste Rodin, the French sculptor, spent a lot of time observing the human anatomy, which helped him to convey emotions in his artwork. “Every part of the human figure is expressive,” he said.

A hundred years later, Dr. James Chang, an internationally renowned hand reconstruction surgeon at Stanford, has been using the hands Rodin sculpted to teach medical students to identify particular hand conditions. For example, the constricted left hand of Pierre de Weissant, in Rodin's Second Maquette for the Burghers of Calais, resembles the hand of a patient with Apert syndrome, a rare genetic disorder in which the joints of the hand are fused.

Chang has turned his observations into an undergraduate course at Stanford titled “Surgical Anatomy of the Hand: From Rodin to Reconstruction,” which attracts students from a range of disciplines including medicine and the humanities. Students learn how to dissect human limbs and about reconstructive surgery techniques, all while discovering Rodin's art.

“This was just like a mental puzzle for me to figure out why these Rodin hands had these different medical conditions,” Chang said. “I found that people are really drawn to these hands because of the different emotions they convey: Doctors love seeing these hands because they gave beauty to their daily work. Artists and students in the humanities love to try to understand the underlying anatomy to these hands.”

"Inside Rodin’s Hands: Art, Technology and Surgery" is an exhibition at Stanford's Cantor Center for Visual Arts. The exhibition will run from April 9 until August 4 and includes 10 bronze sculptures by Rodin, alongside photos of patients' hands describing the medical conditions they resemble. Visitors can also learn about the anatomy of the hands by looking through historical anatomy books or by peering through an iPad at a fixed distance from the sculptures. When the iPad is rotated around the artwork, visitors can see the blood vessels and bones inside of the hand based off of the medical condition Chang identified. To get this effect, Chang asked computer graphics experts to take some of his patients’ CT scans and superimpose those into the computer-scanned Rodin hands.

Sanford graduate Samuel Tanugi-Cohen, who took Chang’s course in the winter of 2010, also contributed a small video interview to the exhibition.

He said that the class solidified his passion for art and medicine. “I learned to see how artists have a very similar drive and sensibility to doctors,” Tanugi-Cohen said, “and an obsession with understanding human emotions and the human anatomy.”

Large Left Hand, 1903.

Chang observed that this sculpture looks like a patient with a hand fracture. Fractures can cause pain, stiffness and loss of movement, and can lead to long-term problems including weakness in the hand or early arthritis.Bronze. Posthumous cast 1967, 4/12. Gift of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, 1974.46.

Blessing Left Hand, 1880–84.

This sculpture reminded Chang of the medical condition Dupuytren’s contracture, a hand deformity caused by a thickening of the fibrous tissue layer underneath the skin of the palm and fingers. Once knots of tissue form under the skin, the fingers get pulled into a bent position and cannot be straightened completely.Bronze. 4 1/2 in. x 2 7/8 in. x 6 in. Gift of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, 1974.44.

Large Clenched Left Hand, 1888.

Rodin’s bronze Clenched Left Hand looks similar to a patient with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a neurological disorder that causes weakness in the hands and muscle atrophy. “I see pain and anguish and stress in the hands,” Chang said. “As a hand surgeon and an anatomist it’s challenging to unravel the different imbalances between tendons and nerves that would have to occur to create that type of posture in the hand.”Bronze, posthumous cast, 1971, 7/12. 18 3/4 in. x 10 3/4 in. x 6 in. Gift of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, 1974.49.

Left Hand of Eustache de Saint-Pierre, 1886.

Chang believes that this sculpture corresponds with the medical condition volar ganglion. Volar ganglion is a tumor or cyst on the hand. They are said to be benign about 95 percent of the time and are treated with nonsurgical treatment, arthroscopic surgery, or open surgery.Bronze. 11 in. x 5 1/2 in. x 5 3/4 in. Gift of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, 1998.359.

Study for Pierre de Weissant, 1885.

Corresponds with medical condition: Apert HandBronze, cast 1971. 27 ½ x 11 x 11 in. Gift of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, 1974.98

Study for Pierre de Weissant (detail), 1885

Corresponds with medical condition: Apert HandBronze, cast 1971. 27 ½ x 11 x 11 in. Gift of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, 1974.98