The doctor and the doll

Dr. P. Ravi Shankar
Aruba, Kingdom of the Netherlands

 Norman Rockwell
Doctor and doll

Norman Rockwell, one of the most famous American artists of the twentieth century, depicted ordinary American life from an optimistic perspective. He once stated that he did not portray the ugly and the sordid, but portrayed life as he would like it to be. One of his paintings, Doctor and doll depicts an encounter between a young girl and an elderly general practitioner in an American or a western setting. The little girl is holding out her doll to the doctor and watches intently as the doctor pretends to listen to the doll’s heart through his stethoscope. The doctor, well dressed and serious, seems kind and genial, representing everyone’s favorite image of that profession. His black bag indicates that he makes house calls. The colors in the painting are mostly dark and somber, except for the slashes of red in the girl’s cap, shoes, the doll’s costume, and the doctor’s ruddy cheeks. The scene seems trusting and empathetic, the overall impression is an optimistic one, but there is also an underlying tension. The girl holds out the doll reluctantly, and her facial expression seems to indicate that she may not fully trust the doctor.

I usually use this painting during a teaching session on the doctor-patient relationship and ask the students to write a brief one hundred word story about the scene depicted. Their stories bring out several issues and concerns about the relationship between the young patient and her elderly doctor. For most students the kind doctor seems to represent the ideal relationship between the two characters, the doctor and his young patient. Also, dealing with young patients and their mistrust of doctors often come to the fore in their stories. The child is sick but scared of the doctor, who pretends to examine the doll in order to try to establish a relationship with his reluctant and suspicious patient. Children are often much attached to their toys, and a doctor who spends the time and effort establishing a relationship with a girl’s doll often wins her trust, placing that relationship at a higher level.

Most students seem to have had little difficulty in relating to the scene depicted. The doctor elicited feelings of faith, geniality, and competence, suggesting they would be comfortable in having him as their physician. But some expressed regret about the changing nature of the doctor-patient relationship, the loss of the personal connection with the physician who was once regarded almost as a member of the family, and the diminished role of the family physician in the developed as well as the developing nations of the world.

Doctor and doll should be of interest to medical educators and allow them to explore various aspects of the patient-doctor relationship from a variety of different perspectives.


DR. P. RAVI SHANKAR is Professor of Medical Education and Chair of the Curriculum Committee at the Xavier University School of Medicine, Aruba, Kingdom of the Netherlands.