Family Treasures: My Great-Grandmother's Anatomy Drawings

Most people get ice cream after a tonsillectomy. My great grandmother got a pioneering career. 

She'd graduated from Kaiserwerth Teachers College near the Rhine a few years before, headed to the States and ended up heading the German department at a small girls school in Cleveland by her early 20s. Three years in, her tonsils came out.  It was around Valentine's day and she noticed that the girls were sending each other silly little drawings, so she put pen to paper and sketched out a drawing of surgeon performing a tonsillectomy and sent it off to the surgeon who'd performed hers, Dr. John Ingersoll.

Ingersoll liked what he saw. He needed a medical artist and they were hard to come by. There were only two working in the U.S. at the time. So, she started to attend his operations to sketch the diseased tissue. The drawings started appearing with Ingersoll's articles in medical journals and other doctors took notice. The most important one: Dr. George Crile (he helped found the Cleveland Clinic).
 
Crile convinced her to enroll at Johns Hopkins for a year as a special student in anatomy. No schools offered courses in medical art, but Crile thought she'd pick up enough to perfect her techniques. Within a year, she was on Crile's staff, attending lectures attended by the world's top medical minds. She developed a process for making almost microscopic drawings on film which could be projected onto the wall with lantern light.  

The Mayo brothers wanted her to come to Rochester, but instead Crile sent her to Alaska to do a few drawings of salmon brain cells for his new book, Brain Cells and Surgery. In Seattle, waiting for her boat and being entertained by some of Dr. Crile's medical friends, she met Dr. Otis Floyd Lamson, a former Mayo Clinic physician now practicing in Seattle. The tall, blonde, All-American football player from the University of Pennsylvania was the only bachelor at the party and he and great grandma were paired.
 
The wedding was set for Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland were she sang in the choir, but just as Otis was set to leave Seattle to get hitched, a prominent official of the Northern Pacific Railway went down with a ruptured appendix and insisted that Dr. Lamson and no one else operate on him. The operation barely saved his life, so the patient and his family insisted that he stay until he was fully on the mend. Not without gratitude, the railroad magnate dispatched his private train to Cleveland to get the bride-to-be.

Armenouhie continued her medical drawing career and while pregnant with my great uncle, penned the book, How I Came to Be, the autobiography of an unborn infant.

By the time she died in 1970, she'd managed to be the first female medical illustrator in the U.S.; helped establish the juvenile justice system with Father Flannigan; fought for Armenian and Chinese refugees; received a citation from President Truman in 1946 for "meritorious personal services on behalf of the nation"; from the surgeon general of the Navy for "exceptional cooperation and outstanding services" and so many other things it's impossible to list. What a woman.

Images courtesy of Christine Lamson (Armenouhie's granddaughter, my father's cousin)
Sources: From Many Lands, Louis Ademic (New York, 1940), Seattle Post-Intelligencer Obit, Sept. 23, 1970

19 comments

  1. Stunning, gorgeous, inspiring drawings. And what a life! Thanks...

  2. I'm still just can't believe how amazing these are. We better get busy in the life achievement department to live up our family name.

  3. Wow this is super impressive!

    And your business card rocks by the way! You should do a series...you can make nice inkjet prints on archival paper and sell them on Etsy! I'd buy em!

    I'm so glad to make your online aquaintance...kindred spirits we are!

    xo Lavona

  4. Courtney says:

    These are absolutely incredible! What a life your Great-Grandmother had...and how amazing for you all to have such lovely pieces with so much history behind them!

  5. WOW - these are truly amazing - what a wonderful story too - thank you for sharing!

  6. JE says:

    These are lovely. And what a great story!

  7. Anonymous says:

    This is just the most amazing thing I've ever seen in my entire life. Actually your whole blog is the most amazing thing I've ever seen in my entire life. Keep up the great work. I read it daily!!

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  9. katiehov says:

    beautiful work. is "hovey" german like this g-grandmother? it sounds so similar to my last name (hovany) which is hungarian.

  10. This great grandma was actual a Tashjian (Armenian), but went to boarding school in Germany because her parents didn't want her to get hurt in the Turkish fighting. Hovey -- her daughter's first husband's last name -- is English...but I'm sure we're all tied in somehow! How cool. My cousin is Katharine "Katie" Hovey!

  11. Those are fantastic family treasures indeed. I would have liked to meet her!

  12. bill says:

    This was so interesting! You should check out Taschen's Atlas of Human Anatomy & Surgery - it's beautiful but I can honestly say that the drawings in the book aren't as gorgeous as your great-grandmother's!

  13. I have to agree with anonymous of Aug. 4. I found myself at a wonderful tech conference in San Francisco today thinking about how your blog was one of the best ever, completely uber-cool, and utterly fascinating. Your great-grandmother is a magnificent inspiration, and so are you.

  14. Breathe-taking.
    What patience.
    Love these and the story!

  15. David says:

    Hello Hollister, I know this is a long quiet exchange, but I was just directed to it by a colleague at the Cleveland Clinic. I am a medical illustrator and faculty member in Art as Applied to Medicine at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. This is a wonderful post. I enjoyed seeing your great-grandmother's work and hearing her story. While I doubt we have any of her student work in the archives we likely have photos of her with Brödel and classmates. My colleague in Cleveland is preparing a centennial exhibition and asked me to confirm the dates of your GG was here and any other info I might find. In doing so, if I uncover any photos you might be interested in I will send them your way.

    Beautiful blog.

    Best regards,
    David Rini

  16. Josh myob says:

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  17. Josh myob says:

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  18. Josh myob says:

    Hello! I am of The Lamson clan :) I'm wondering if your Great Grandmother was Mother of a Robert Lamson( my Grandfather) married to June Lamson (Grandmother) with a Daughter June (Mother), now June Gravelle of Seattle? They also lived in Akron, Ohio until the early 1960's. How wonderful if we are actually related or maybe just a creepy coincidence by name?