Art history and me

|Suzy Lishman is a pathologist and trustee of the Association for Art History. She reflects upon her previous studies in art history alongside her medical career and research.

Suzy Lishman CBE is a consultant pathologist with an interest in colorectal cancer and patient safety. She is immediate past president of the Royal College of Pathologists, where she led the public engagement programme for the last decade. She joined the Association as a Trustee last year.

What is your interest in art history?
I visited Italy several times on childhood holidays with my grandparents and my grandfather, who was also a doctor, passed on his interest in art and architecture. As a medical student I spent a summer vacation studying Italian and art history in Florence. On my return I enrolled with the Open University, studying Italian renaissance art and architecture alongside my medical studies. I took a break until after my medical exams then took several further Open University courses. My honours dissertation was on the inscription on Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity. Since then my interest in art history has largely involved visiting galleries when I get the opportunity and using images of works of art to illustrate talks about health, disease and the history of medicine.

Why were you keen to get involved with the Association for Art History?
I have many years’ experience as a charity trustee in membership organisations and am accustomed to working with teams to develop and deliver strategy. I am particularly interested in public and political engagement and often give talks about the crossover between art and science. It seemed like perfect timing when I saw that the organisation was looking for new trustees and was undergoing rebranding. Being a trustee allows me to pursue my interest in art history while contributing to the smooth running and development of the charity.

What do your talks about art and science involve?
I have given a wide range of talks to schools and the public on themes including art, history and medicine. I recently spoke to Cambridge University students about how studying art makes medical students better doctors by improving their observational skills, empathy and visual literacy. I have curated an exhibition based on the art of the heart, giving talks to art and science students about how depictions of anatomy can be expressed through a range of media. I have also organised art competitions for school students, from primary to ‘A’ level, based on pathology, including microscopic images.

What other roles have you got in addition to being a trustee of the Association for Art History?
I am a full time NHS consultant at Peterborough City Hospital, where I lead the department of cellular pathology. The main part of my job is examining tissue under the microscope to diagnose diseases such as cancer. I am a trustee of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, which represents all the medical royal colleges to improve care for patients. As Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of the charity Bowel Cancer UK I lead the committee that awards funding for research into the disease. I am also a trustee and council member of the Royal Veterinary College, a college of the University of London.

Do you think there are similarities between pathology and art history?
I think that the skills I use to diagnose cancer are very similar to those used when examining works of art. When I look at a slide under the microscope I consider the shape, colour, symmetry, outline, proportions and relationships of the cells. I also consider the context of the case, such as the results of other tests or information about the patient. I think this is very similar to viewing a painting and recognising the artist by the style, brush strokes, content etc. Pattern recognition and putting things in context are important parts of both disciplines.

How do you see the Association for Art History evolving?
It is an exciting time for the Association and a great opportunity to increase what the organisation offers and to attract new members and supporters. I am delighted to serve as a trustee and look forward to working with the excellent central team and to meeting and talking to members over the coming years. I am particularly looking forward to attending the 2018 Annual Conference, the content of which will make a nice change from my usual meetings on molecular genetics and antibiotic resistance!