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Doctor Curmudgeon® Ouch!

By Diane Batshaw Eisman, M.D. FAAP Doctor Eisman is in Family Practice in Aventura, Florida with her partner, Dr. Eugene Eisman, an internist/cardiologist

As Lewis Carroll has said in his narrative poem, The Walrus and the Carpenter:

“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “To talk of many things:

Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—

Of cabbages—and kings—

And why the sea is boiling hot—

And whether pigs have wings.”

And indeed the time has come for me to speak about an ear. I am confident that Mr. Carroll would approve my talking of the ear of Post-Impressionist artist, Vincent Van Gogh.

The ear episode happened on the night of December 23, 1888. Just a few nights before Christmas.

At that time, Van Gogh was living in the south of France, in Arles. He had invited his friend and fellow artist, Paul Gaugin to spend time at his home.

Their relationship was collegial but also frequently argumentative.

On the evening of December 23, one of their quarrels reached a boiling point. Van Gogh was known to have mental problems, including bouts of depression. Suffering with delusions he often had psychotic episodes and was a heavy drinker.

There is a great deal of controversy over what actually happened that night. Was his whole ear severed or merely the lobe clipped off? Did he slice his own ear? Or was there foul play? Did Gaugin take a sword to his friend’s ear?

The official thought from the website vincentvangogh.org commented that “Gaugin stormed out of the house” after a fierce quarrel that night.

The website continues with the narrative, “In a fit of madness, Van Gogh grabbed a straight razor and followed, intending his friend harm, but returned home instead. There he used the weapon on himself, slicing off one ear.”

It was an Irish art historian, Bernadette Murphy whose research led to the answer. She was interviewed by Virgie Hoban for the Berkeley Library at the University of California. Murphy found that indeed, the whole ear was chopped off. Her book, Van Gogh’s Ear, describes her research and conclusions.

Murphy was allowed to go through the personal items of Irving Stone, Van Gogh’s biographer who wrote Lust for Life.

And she hit pay dirt! She found records from the doctor, Felix Rey, who treated Van Gogh after the incident. And there it was: a drawing depicting an incision around the base of the severed ear.

After the self-mutilation, Vincent Van Gogh went to a psychiatric hospital.

But where did the ear go?

Murphy’s research found that a cleaner who worked at a café that was frequently visited by Van Gogh was the lucky (or unlucky) recipient of the ear.

Murphy learned that the girl also worked as a maid at a brothel. A local newspaper report stated that Van Gogh gave the young woman the bloody ear outside of the brothel and then she simply fainted.

“This girl, she didn’t seek him out,” Murphy said. “She was traumatized.”

But all I can say is: OUCH!

Dr. Curmudgeon suggests “Bitter Medicine”, Dr. Eugene Eisman’s story of his experiences–from the humorous to the intense—as a young army doctor serving in the Vietnam War.
Bitter Medicine by Eugene H. Eisman, M.D. –on Amazon

Doctor Curmudgeon® is Diane Batshaw Eisman, M.D., a physician-satirist. This column originally appeared on SERMO, the leading global social network for doctors.
SERMO www.sermo.com

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