Surgery and anaesthesia in art: The contribution of Dorothy Kay

P C Gordon, A R Reed


Dorothy Kay, the acclaimed Irish-born Port Elizabeth artist, married Dr Hobart Kay, FRCSI, in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1910. She was an exceptional portrait painter, whose astute observation of detail and ability to empathise with her subject and convey character brought her much important work. Her traditional British realist-school style of painting, and ability to depict mechanical equipment accurately, led to several industrial commissions. In 1937 these skills combined to produce her largest painting, ‘Surgery’, which depicts a patient undergoing an abdominal operation in a Port Elizabeth hospital. The painting graphically captures the skill and care exhibited by the anaesthetist, together with the anaesthetic equipment used at that time. During the war Dorothy became an accredited war artist. Eight of her wartime paintings were purchased by the Union Government and are now housed in the Ditsong National Museum of Military History in Saxonwold, Johannesburg. Two of these paintings of medical interest are discussed. The first, entitled ‘Operation in a Base Hospital’, depicts surgery being performed in a base hospital and is very similar in composition to ‘Surgery’. The second, entitled ‘Blood to Save Lives’, portrays a volunteer donating blood. 

Authors' affiliations

P C Gordon, Department of Anaesthesia, University of Cape Town, South Africa

A R Reed, Department of Anaesthesia, New Somerset Hospital and University of Cape Town, South Africa

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history of medicine; Dorothy Kay; art and medicine

Cite this article

South African Medical Journal 2014;104(2):107-109. DOI:10.7196/SAMJ.7247

Article History

Date submitted: 2013-07-08
Date published: 2013-07-29

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