A Physician and his Art

Nestled in a small corner of Lower Merion, PA there is a quaint gallery. The road leading up to the entrance is quiet, lined with lush trees and residential homes. You can hear birds chirping in the garden, children playing nearby. If you blinked, you would miss it. Within its walls rests the most culturally significant, private collection of artwork worth billions. Do you know?

The Barnes Foundation is the summation of a physician’s life immersed in the art world. Dr. Albert Barnes was a visionary collector of art: he forged warm relationships with prolific artists, such as William Glackens and Henri Mattise. I spent a semester studying at The Barnes Foundation a couple years ago, was mesmerised by its mystique, and learned much about the man behind the collection.

Dr. Albert Coombs Barnes (1872-1951) was a native Philadelphian, born in Kensington. He attended Central High of Philadelphia at thirteen, a prestigious secondary school able to grant baccalaureate degrees. He met Glackens in one of his classes. Barnes stated,

“We became close friends, partly through my interest in his drawing…and because we had the same interest in sports.”

Both were members of the school baseball team. Barnes graduated in 1889 with a B.S. degree.

In 1889, Barnes matriculated to the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, and received his M.D. by age twenty. He interned at Polyclinic Hospital of Philadelphia and Mercy Hospital of Pittsburgh, and spent six months in the psychiatric ward at State Hospital for the Insane in Warren, PA. After interning, clinical practice was not of interest to Barnes and instead focused on chemical physiology. He visited hospitals in London and Paris in 1893. He saved up enough money to move to Germany and work in the department of clinical medicine and experimental physiology at the University of Berlin from 1894-1895.

Towards the turn of the century, Barnes became employed at the pharmaceutical company H.K. Mulford and Company, as an advertising and sales manager. The company sent Dr. Barnes to Germany to study pharmacology in 1900, and recruited a chemist, Hermann Hille. Both Barnes and Hille worked independently together on a silver compound, Argyrol. In 1902, they started the firm of Barnes and Hille.

Argyrol was used for treating gonorrhea, but principally as an preventive treatment in gonorrheal blindness in neonates. Hille was responsible for production and Barnes oversaw sales and marketing. The drug was never patented, which would have unveiled the formula. Instead, Barnes trademarked the drug. However, the partnership between Hille and Barnes ended in 1907. Hille was bought out and Barnes formed the aptly named A.C. Barnes Company in 1908. Dr. Barnes’ training and experience in medicine, chemistry and business, as well as psychology, ensured the success of his company. He often consulted on cases referred to him by medical colleagues. However, sales of Argryol boomed.

Barnes rearranged his workday to consume six hours, and befriended the philosopher John Dewey, who inspired him to start The Barnes Foundation in 1922, which he filled with artwork he and Glackens procured in Europe. Barnes had the insight to sell the A.C. Barnes Company in 1929 to the Zonite Products Corporation, right before the Great Depression.

Having made his wealth, Barnes could devote himself to the foundation, expanding his collection, and revolutionizing art education. Today his collection is valued at more the 25 billion dollars. The collection is about to reopen along the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, amidst much controversy.

Dr. Albert Barnes’ life and legacy is a testimony to the intimate relationship between art and medicine. The Barnes Foundation represents more than just the artists and their paintings. Barnes, like many of the artists in his collection, challenged the established art institution by altering how one should learn about art, and providing the finest art education to students from disadvantaged schools.

Dr. Barnes proves to me that there is much physicians can do outside of practice to help shape the world and make people feel better. I look to my future in medicine with promise that art can serve a purpose.

Wattenmaker, Richard J. “Dr. Albert C. Barnes and The Barnes Foundation.”
        Great French Paintings from The Barnes Foundation.
        New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. 3-28. Print.


  1. Thanks for this excellent, thoughtful post. I’m looking forward to seeing the Barnes at its new location. There’s an interesting discussion of Dr. Barnes and his museum in Amy Whitaker’s Museum Legs, if you’re interested, in the chapter titled “Alfred Barr Got Fired.”

    1. thanks for the suggestion! I will have to check it out

  2. When I was a medic I shared a hosue with an artist and philosopher, we had lots of debates asto whose role was the most important to society. The jury’s still out on all of us, but this man seems to have a good claim to have earned his place in heaven, or wherever he is now. Thanks for this.

  3. […] This article was originally published on ‘The Physician’s Palette‘ […]

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