Four physicians examining a post-op male patient.

Joe Wilder: Surgeon, Artist, Athlete

Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Madeline Stern Wilder, who shares with us the story and work of her husband, noted artist and surgeon Dr. Joseph R. Wilder (1920–2003). In 1990 the National Library of Medicine (NLM) held a one man exhibit of his paintings at entitled ‘The Surgeon at Work.’ Now, thanks to Ms. Stern’s generosity, NLM has recently acquired four giclées and an oil painting of Dr. Wilder’s for the History of Medicine Division Prints and Photographs collection. 

As President George Bush once stated, Joe Wilder “was a Renaissance Man.”Joe Wilder sits in front of an enlargment of one of his painting Magic Hands.

Dr. Joseph R. Wilder was Chief of surgery at the Hospital for Joint Diseases as well as a professor of surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital from the 1960’s until his retirement in the mid-1980’s. During this time, he developed a passion for painting and quickly became well known for his impressionistic paintings that captured the essence of surgery and sport.

Wilder’s paintings capture perfectly what takes place in an operating room from the viewpoint of someone who has performed thousands of operations and seen thousands more performed. The viewer knows what it’s like to be deep in surgery, which is why his renderings of it have an emotional as well as intellectual quality. It is the surgeon himself, showing us in great detail what it looks like and feels like to operate on a living human being. One of his most important bodies of work is his Surgeons at Work series.

“Around the operating table responsible Surgeons function as a team, sensitive to each other, relying on each other, watching over and protecting the patient as only people in love with an ideal can.” — Joe Wilder, M.D.

Commenting on his work on this series Wilder said, “Physicians, Surgeons, and Nurses have spared human suffering throughout history. They discover new medicines and techniques, frequently creating miracles. The great dedication and personal sacrifices that they make day by day, hour by hour allow adults and children throughout the world to lead happier and more productive lives. My paintings are dedicated to those medical professionals who have devoted their lives to create a more beautiful future for all mankind.”

“In my medical paintings I encapsulated a half century as a committed doctor, highlighting the powerful forces and actions which take place daily in hospitals and medical settings. Hospitals are beacons of hope for the afflicted and suffering and this is what my paintings depict. I have tried in my surgical paintings to portray the surgeons as the dedicated, caring, hardworking individuals I’ve observed by the thousands in my thirty-five-year career as a Chief and Professor of Surgery. My Surgeon at Work series is an extension of the joy I have experienced as a physician, a healer and a member of a noble profession.”

Joe Wilder was born in Baltimore in 1920. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1942 and received his medical degree from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1945. He spent ten years of extensive residential training at Columbia, thereafter serving as an instructor of Pathology. He became an instructor of Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania, after which he completed a seven-year residency program at Cornell Medical School.

He then served as Chief of Surgery at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio until 1954. After this he spent a year at The Karolinksa Institute in Sweden studying cardiovascular surgery. He was a Markle Scholar, awarded by a foundation that seeks out future leaders in medicine.

Dr. Wilder was appointed Chief of Surgery at The Hospital for Joint Diseases at the age of 38. Shortly after this he was appointed Professor of Surgery at The Mount Sinai School of Medicine, then Professor of Surgery, Emeritus. He was also initiated into Phi Beta Kappa. He has had two surgery books published.

Artist Joe Wilder sits on a stool in a room surrounded by his sports paintings.
Joe Wilder with his paintings of athletes, ca, 1985
National Library of Medicine #101451896

Wilder was the recipient of many awards and honors beyond his medical career. He was one of two doctors in history inducted into The Lacrosse Hall of Fame. He was selected as Man of the Year at Yankee Stadium. He is the recipient of The Dartmouth College Presidential Inaugural Medal for Achievement in Art and Medicine. He has had four Art books published to critical acclaim. His book “Surgical Reflections, Images in Paint and Prose” published in 1993 won first place gold medal by The American Writers Association for being the most beautiful book of the year. His writings have been featured in magazines, newspaper articles, and many editorials in the New York Times, including profiles about him. His artwork has been featured in numerous galleries and museum shows and he has appeared in many major documentaries.

“When I look at Joe Wilder’s paintings I remember and feel once again all the things I have been trying to describe. Joe Wilder is not only a surgeon, he must be an extremely sensitive person. I see in his figures, the way his figures stand, their body language, their very attitude propel from the page into my mind. He understands it all!  Thank you Joe Wilder for bringing it all back and making it so real for someone who lived it night and day for forty years.” —C. Everett Koop, M.D.

His lithographs hang in numerous medical centers around the country, including The Yale Library, Dartmouth College, and The Mount Sinai Medical School. Dr. Wilder’s paintings are also owned by many serious art collectors around the world.

Four physicians examining a post-op male patient.
Surgical Team Checking Post-op Patient While Laying On Hands, 1993
Courtesy Madeline Stern Wilder
National Library of Medicine #101754901

Sadly, Joe Wilder passed away in July 2003. He was a “healer” every minute of his life and that is how he wanted to be remembered. He never refused to help anyone regardless of their ability to pay. He saved thousands of lives in the operating room and taught his skills to the thousands of surgeons he trained during his thirty-five years as Chief and Professor of Surgery. He said that he owed much of his success in life to his parents and his education at Dartmouth. “It has been a long ride from being an eight-year-old street kid selling newspapers to becoming a Chief and Professor of Surgery, and then being recognized as an American Artist. These last few years have become a paradise for me as at long last I can paint whenever and as long as I want. All of nature’s objects, all creatures great and small, are mine for the painting.”

As Hippocrates wrote “wherever the art of medicine is loved there is also the love of humanity.” This explains the great motivation behind Joe Wilder, Surgeon and Artist.

For questions about these four giclées and the oil painting recently acquired by the National Library of Medicine, or about our other historical collections, including how to access them, please contact the History of Medicine Division Reference staff at NLM Customer Support or call (301) 402-8878.

For more information and to see more of Dr. Wilder’s art please go to: http://joewilderarts.com/

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