AMA Journal of Ethics®

Illuminating the art of medicine

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AMA Journal of Ethics®

Illuminating the art of medicine

Virtual Mentor. February 2000, Volume 2, Number 2.

Images of Healing and Learning

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Gustav Klimt's The Kiss

The Kiss, the most enduring work of 19th century Viennese painter Gustav Klimt, is an artistic example of the importance of touch in the healing process.

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), a Viennese painter, lived and worked during a period of enormous cultural, artistic, and scientific fecundity. His contemporaries included such luminaries as Sigmund Freud and the architect Otto Wagner. He founded the Art Nouveau Movement in Vienna, which started as an oppositional force, decrying the overly academic approach to art in the 19th century. Klimt is best known for his later works, which included richly decorative murals and portraits. The women in his paintings were often depicted in mythic settings, as, seen in the painting of Salome holding the head of John the Baptist. His many other portraits of women evoked strong images of eroticism, sexuality, and love.

Gustav Klimt's The Kiss The Kiss (1907-1908, 180 x 180 cm, Österreichisches Galerie Wien, Vienna; Available at: The Web Museum Web site) is perhaps Klimt's most popular and enduring work, evoking passion and intimacy through the use of vibrant colors. In the painting, only the couple's faces and arms are visible, and their embrace suggests the power of loving touch. The therapeutic benefits of touch are undeniable. Infants and young children benefit physiologically and emotionally from the loving touch of parents and caretakers. Studies have shown that the simple act of touching can lower blood pressure and help individuals deal better with pain [1-3].

"Laying on of hands" by physicians [4] and other healers has a long history and reflects the importance of touch in the healing process. One physician commented that despite the fact that nonessential touching was frowned on during her training, she would still hold an elderly patient's hand and put an arm around a worried pregnant teenager. As she said:

I always touch patients when they come to see me. I shake their hands in greeting, take a pulse on everyone, put a hand on a shoulder while auscultating lung fields. Although I don't usually initiate hugs, I'm happy to share one. ...Don't be afraid to touch your patients. They figuratively and literally put themselves into your hands. Handle them with care, but handle them. (Fugh-Berman A. Why you should touch your patients.
Med Econ. December 13, 1993;70:91. No. 23.)


  1. Sellick SM, Zaza C. Critical review of 5 nonpharmacologic strategies for managing cancer pain. Cancer Prev Control. 1998;2:7-14. Abstract of article available at: MEDLINE. Accessed January 25, 2000.
  2. Whitcher SJ, Fisher JD. Multidimesional reaction to therapeutic touch in hospital setting. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1979;37:87-96. Abstract of article available at: MEDLINE. Accessed January 25, 2000.
  3. Cugelman A. Therapeutic touch: an extension of professional skills. J CANNT. 1998 Summer;8:30-32. Abstract available at: MEDLINE. Accessed January 25, 2000.
  4. Older J. Teaching touch at medical school. JAMA. 1984;252:931-933. Abstract available at: MEDLINE. Accessed January 25, 2000.


Healing and learning appear to be paired processes, occurring together throughout human activity. But nowhere are these processes as prominently seen as they are during medical training.

For most students, the medium that most readily lends itself to retaining some visual memory of a succession of fleeting moments is the camera. Through photographs, the highlights of yesterday's happenings remain vivid and communicable to others. The subtle interplay of light and shadow that renders a photograph unique may even be likened to the delicate shifts that characterize interactions between patient and physician or between student and teacher.

We invite students to send photographs portraying aspects of healing and learning. Accompany your photos with a description of what is captured in the image and the special significance the picture has for you. Through these images, students can communicate their personal perspectives on medical training and share their observations and reflections with others.

Each month, a selection of photos and descriptions will be posted on this page.

Include 1-6 large, glossy photos with:

1. Title and description of photograph(s)
2. Student's name, address, phone, e-mail, and medical school

Send your images of healing and learning to: Audiey Kao, MD, PhD, Institute for Ethics, AMA, 515 North State, Chicago, IL 60610

The viewpoints expressed on this site are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the AMA.