New Mural Brightens Medical Campus, Offers History Lesson – News from the School of Medicine

Motorists and pedestrians in East Canfield, west of St. Antoine Street, now have a more colorful ride and walk – as well as a history lesson – thanks to a newly installed huge mural.

The mural, the product of a public humanities initiative to connect a multidisciplinary team of doctors, artists, students and activists with the wider community to celebrate the history of diversity in medicine and in public health at Wayne State University and around the city, was installed on the 375-foot-long concrete wall facing the public along the sidewalk north of Scott Hall on the south side of Canfield Street on 13 June.

Wayne State University School of Medicine’s Office of Faculty Affairs and Professional Development partnered with WSU’s College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts Department of Arts to design the artwork. WSU fine arts students designed the mural, based on oral histories from deep-rooted community members in the location of the School of Medicine. The area is the former site of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Detroit’s historic Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods. The mural is intended as a monument to the progress of African Americans in the medical field, in Detroit and within the global community.

In 2019, painting and drawing teacher Margi Weir had a vision for a mural course. She shared that vision with department chair Sheryl Oring, and students have been making — and capturing — history ever since.

There is now a collaborative working group called Arts Integration in Medical Education, led by Oring, chair of the James Pearson Duffy Department of Art and Art History; Beena Sood, MD, associate dean for professional development at the School of Medicine; and Grace Serra, curator of the WSU Art Collection. “We’ve assembled an incredible group of active collaborators on this project, which shows how critical it is to solving some of the most important issues of the day,” Oring said. “Art can play a vital role in helping us see things in a new light, honing our powers of observation, and providing us with a means of healing.”

Cara Young and Ephemera Fae, MFA students in the Department of Art and Art History, and Ashley Kramer, MD/Ph.D. student in the School of Medicine, participated in the planning and execution of the mural, and also held workshops with a cohort of medical students on visual thinking strategies, gesture drawing and sketching gross anatomy.

Jennifer Mendez, Ph.D., associate professor emeritus, internal medicine and director of community engagement programs, led a multidisciplinary research study funded by the Association of American Medical Colleges. The study included Fae and Young who, using art from the WSU Art Collection, facilitated visual thinking strategy sessions to train medical students to develop more acute visual literacy. Visual literacy training helps medical students in a variety of areas, including better interpretation of ultrasound images and developing an awareness of implicit biases when evaluating patients.

While chairing the Women in Medicine and Science group, Dr. Sood hosted a journal club organized by the American Medical Women’s Association. The club discussed an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association titled “Deck the Halls with Diverse Portraits,” which analyzed how medical school murals tended to promote racial stereotyping and implicit bias. He advocated for the need to display diverse teams in medical schools and academic health centers.

“This article made a deep impression on me,” she said. “Those of us at the book club thought it would be great to have a mural in our school that shows the true diversity of our profession.”

Dr. Sood presented these ideas in collaboration with Oring, Serra and the Department of Art and Art History. She learned that the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts and the Department of Art and Art History were looking to collaborate with the School of Medicine.

The mural, supported by a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council, honors the history of diversity in medicine and the impact of African-American healthcare leaders in Detroit and today. The mural also celebrates the role of the School of Medicine and the Detroit Medical Center in shaping health care and public health.

“We hope this will reveal the important symbiotic relationship between the university and the wider community, and use it to serve as a bridge to creating a better future,” Serra said. “Art is the tool needed to tell these stories.”

Community participation played a key role in the project.

“We knew we had to involve the community in this project, and it was essential to include their voices,” said Dr Sood. “We want to break down all the walls between Wayne State University School of Medicine and the people we serve, and this project can be one way to make that connection.”

Serra conducted oral history interviews while Young and Fae held listening sessions with medical students to help develop the concept for the mural. Serra worked with community leaders Reverend Jimmy Womack and Reverend Nicholas Hood of the United Church of Christ Plymouth on St. Anthony’s Street to connect with congregation members and conduct the oral history interviews. The church, located around the corner from the medical school, has close historical ties to Dunbar Hospital. Built in 1892, Dunbar was Detroit’s first black community hospital. At that time, “black doctors could not practice and black patients would not be admitted to white hospitals. A strong community was built, connected to Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, which was just around the corner from the Paradise Theater and the Gotham Hotel. These are all very important and famous sites,” Serra said.

One of the oral history participants is a descendant of Daisy Hill Northcross, MD, a key figure in Detroit medical history. Dr. Northcross, the second black woman to apply for a medical license in Alabama, emigrated from Montgomery to Detroit in 1916. The following year, she and her husband, David Northcross, opened the first black owned and operated hospital in the city, Detroit Mercy General Hospital, which paved the way for Dunbar Hospital, where many prominent African-American doctors would get their start. The Northcrosses also opened a nursing training center, hotel and store. Dr. Daisy Northcross is commemorated in the mural.

Fae said the mural celebrates both the residents of Black Bottom who lived at the location of the medical school as well as the ongoing impact of Detroit’s medical community.

“We want to remember this is a place that was connected to Black Bottom,” Young said. “We also want to honor and celebrate the communities that have been marginalized and also remember that history – not in a painful way, but in a way that celebrates Detroit and global parts of that history.”

Serra stressed the importance of communicating this history through projects like the mural.

“If we talk about the history of the medical school and how the medical school had engaged in the community,” she said, “we have to point out that there were things that existed before the DMC and the WSU School of Medicine. We need to communicate to students and everyone else the impact of this vibrant community. In doing the interviews, I found it was invaluable for community members to telling their stories. It’s a legacy. They realize that they are the ones who remember that time and that at some point there won’t be anyone alive who lived in that time. idea that young people not even born in this era will hear these stories first hand is really important and valuable.

“This job is for the people of Detroit and also for members of the medical community, which is especially important right now,” Fae said. “It’s something we as artists can do to honor the medical community that has literally had a very direct impact on every single person’s life.”

Courtesy of Siobhan Gregory, Associate Professor of Art and Art History at WSU


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