I imagine there was a time when the walls that line this corridor stood empty, new and white. I think of the patrons, physicians, and trainees that channeled through this hallway when the medical center was newly built—and how they could still inhale the traces of fresh paint coming from these walls that seemed to stretch on and on, like an empty canvas, waiting to display a legacy that had yet to be built.

The University Hospital opened its doors in 1959—a testament to the budding legacy of a medical school founded little more than a decade earlier. The Department of Surgery, which was established in 1947, grew alongside the school, and eventually within the new hospital. And over the years, as each expanded, so did their intertwined legacy. For the Department of Surgery, perhaps nowhere was this more evident than on these walls. It became tradition to honor the graduates from the department’s residency program by raising each of their portraits upon the walls of this corridor. One photo per graduate, starting with the class of 1952.

I imagine there were times when leaders in the department were faced with challenges regarding how they would continue to support the faculty and trainees during periods of social change and economic hardship. I think of the patrons, physicians, and trainees who paced past these walls during moments when the future of the department may have felt uncertain. And yet, through transition and evolution, year after year, this corridor served as a living history of all the residents who molded and were molded by the department, with each graduate’s portrait seated on this storied timeline.

Then in 1992, that living history ceased. These walls ran out of real estate. And the empty canvas that once stretched on and on, empty and new, now stood frozen as a monument to the past.

I imagine that the heads of the department came together to discuss what to do about this problem. They recognized that time was finally encroaching on the last piece of space reserved on these walls, which had faithfully curated a legacy of forty years. So it was decided from 1993 forward, the remaining classes would be commemorated in a flipbook, tucked away in a nook just beyond the end of the hall. The flipbook was practical in its ability to consolidate, and the twenty-five years bound within it have more than proved its efficiency.

Yet, while the flipbook may have solved a spatial problem, this was never the problem that needed solving. In a department and in a field that is forever evolving, the flipbook did not change these walls. So for twenty-five years, we have archived our present and tucked it beneath the shadows of our past. To take just one example, in the fifty steps it takes to traverse the forty-year hallway of the department’s early history, you will walk past exactly eight women, and none until you reach 1979. And in the single step it takes to stride past the flipbook, you will slip by all the remaining women who have shaped the training program of which I am a proud member today. Fifty-two. I counted.

I counted because I imagine I will return to this corridor one day with my daughters when they are old enough to contextualize something of our history. I think about the questions they might ask and the stories I might recount of the physicians and trainees that strode past these walls. But even more, I wonder how different this hall might one day look if it were deconstructed and rebuilt to display the department’s present as prominently as its past. What if all of our institutional structures were reimagined to champion the inclusivity we envision for our future and not the prejudices from our past? Perhaps then, my daughters might one day stand beside me and find it difficult to imagine how this corridor used to look—when I tell them these walls were once built to house men, newly graduated and white.

white surgeons


Special thanks to Andrea Gahl for inviting me to her studio, for her stunning portrait, and for driving a not-always-comfortable conversation on inclusion and representation, especially in the proud halls of our institution. Please view more of her artwork at AndreaGahl.com

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