Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Surgeon and ambassador of the humanities: Homage à Grace and Philip Sandblom

Frank Wollheim

The Skeppsholmen bridge and the Royal castle in Stockholm

I realized early on in medical school that I had no talent to become a surgeon. Yet I remember the professor of surgery in Lund, Philip Sandblom (1903-2001), as one of my most significant teachers and introducers to the humanities.  The seventh term of our curriculum was entirely devoted to a clerkship in surgery. The professor had in a short time renewed the academic vitality and diversity of the department, and he was a charismatic teacher.  An unexpected highlight awaited us at the end of the course. The whole class of twenty students was invited to the Sandblom home and entertained with a light meal. Thereafter the professor took us on a tour through the house with its treasures of  Swedish and European works of art.

Grace and Philip Sandblom in their living
room in Lund in the 1950s

This event was an eye opener for medical students in a small town with limited access to major museums. In the entrance hall of the home one was stunned by a superb portrait by Amadeo Modigliani. The painting was later traded for a painting by Courbet, “Renard mort suspendu à un arbre dans la neige” 1. In the dining room one was struck by the forceful Chasse aux lions by Delacroix, “a brilliant example of the artist’s thesis, fundamental to modern art, that before you have time to perceive  what a  painting depicts, its composition and color should have  induced  in  you the  mood the subject  is intended to evoke”1. I remember a classic work by Picasso “La source”, and in the bedroom a painting by Jacques Villon, a name I had never heard of at the time. The name of this painting was “La Montagne de Paille”. There was also a strikingly colorful Henri Matisse painting facing the bed, “Harmonie en jaune”. It was greatly inspiring to witness our professor of surgery explaining some secrets about the treasures on the walls. A Swedish masterpiece in the collection was a portrait by Ernst Josephson of the artist’s uncle Ludvig Josephson. Josephson is recognized as the most important Swedish painter in the second half of the 19th century. Finally I must mention the Swedish 20th century painter Hilding Linnqvist, a close friend of the family, and his painting “The Ward”. All these paintings now hang in public museums, mostly in Stockholm. Naturally I now remember only fragments from this evening in 1954, but its impact has been a lasting one.

The ward by the Swedish artist Hilding
Linnqvist, acquired by Philip Sandblom in 1927 from Svensk-Franska Gallery in Stockholm.
The artist was one of Philip Sandblom’s several close friends among prominent artists.

Difficulties in raising funds sometimes forced the Sandbloms to “sacrifice existing items, with which we were  loath to part”2.  Thus, as mentioned, the Modigliani had to be traded for a Courbet and “a lovely Derain” for the “Chasse aux lions”. These deals were possibly in part also motivated by the true philanthropist’s wish to eventually contribute missing items to the museums in Stockholm.

In 1957 Philip Sandblom was elected vice chancellor of the university in Lund.  He turned out to be a strong fighter for academic freedom as well as an ambassador for the arts. He succeeded in persuading the city council to acquire a sculpture by the famous Spanish artist Eduardo Chillida titled “Campo espacio de paz.” The material is black Swedish diabas and it stands on the central square in downtown Lund. It is an apotheosis for peace. When peace is established its parts will entangle. It was a controversial choice at the time, now a landmark, reminding my generation of a great leader and humanist. It is the only major work by the artist on public display in the country.  After retiring Philip Sandblom moved with his wife to Lausanne, and donated some of the main works of the collection to museums in Stockholm. In return the National Museum of Fine Art published a book about the collection, in which the donor tells about his way to medicine and to the arts, some of the history of the acquisitions, and not least how he met his wife1.  Among the endowments are the paintings by Josephson, Picasso, Courbet, and Delacroix.

Philip’s father John Sandblom came from Sweden to Chicago at the age of 14. John attended the School of Dentistry at Northwestern University and rose to the level of assistant professor. In 1906 when Philip was three years old, the family moved to Oslo, where John organized the Norwegian School of Dentistry. Norway had gained its independence from Sweden only one year earlier. Three years later Philip’s family moved to Stockholm, where John became a successful dentist. He was appointed dentist of the Royal family and was president of the Swedish Society of Dentistry for several years. At age of twelve Philip suffered from abdominal pain and the wrong diagnosis of peptic ulcer was made. He was confined to bed and suffered through a diet consisting mainly of eggs. But it was then that his lifelong interest in reading was founded. Years later the correct diagnosis was determined to be tuberculosis. He was cured only after modern anti-tuberculosis therapy became available.

Harmonie en jaune by Henri Matisse, painted
in 1928 and acquired from the artist  in 1933 through Pierre Matisse, New York.

An essential contributor to Philip’s success in life was his wife. Grace Schaefer (1907-2006) was the daughter of a New York City banker. She and her mother would travel to Europe once a year. In 1931 they spent some time in Stockholm. They knew of the Sandblom family through friends in New York. On their last day in the city they had dinner with the Sandblom family in Saltsjöbaden outside Stockholm. After dinner there was some dancing. The Schaefer ladies were scheduled to leave for Chicago the following morning. However, Philip persuaded them to postpone the departure until the afternoon. He was anxious to show Grace some paintings at the National Museum of Fine Art. The next morning they met at the Skeppsholmen bridge. Here Philip proposed to Grace. She said she needed time to think it over. Minutes later, when they arrived on the second floor of the adjacent museum, her thinking was over. She accepted the proposal. When only hours later Philip told his mother-in-law to-be of his plans she said “you are a silly boy.” The couple was married in New York in March of 1932 and the lifelong marriage was a very happy one. They shared a passionate love for art and had the means to become collectors. Acquiring art in the 1930s was not yet so fashionable an investment as it became  later, and  outstanding works of art could often be bought  at modest prices. One of their first acquisitions was a nature morte by Braque1.

Uncle Ludvig by Ernst  Josephson, painted in 1893 a few years after the artist developed a mental illness. Philip Sandblom first saw this painting in the home of a family friend and was greatly impressed. He encouraged his parents to buy it after the death of the owner. It is now in the National Museum of Fine Arts, Stockholm.

Philip tells that his interest in medicine dates back to his teens when he witnessed a traffic accident. Frightened, he did not know what to do and ran away from the scene. Later he was ashamed and decided to be better prepared next time. He received his basic medical training at the Karolinska Institute, where the legendary professor of surgery Gustav Söderlind recognized his talents and offered him a position. But before starting there he had to spend time at a non-teaching hospital to learn the basics of surgery. The young couple moved to the small town of Örebro, where Philip soon started an ambitious research project leading to a publication in 1933 titled “The function of the human gall bladder studied in connection with blood transfusions and after stomach operations.”  The publication came to the attention of the physiologist Anton Julius Ivy in Chicago, who invited the young doctor to give a lecture at the Chicago Society of Internal Medicine the same year.  Philip also worked some time in Chicago with Dr. Ivy studying the function of the sphincter muscle of the gallbladder. In 1944 Philip defended his PhD thesis on wound healing, then specialized in pediatric surgery. He was the first surgeon in Sweden to operate on “blue babies”. In 1950 he switched again to adult surgery and was appointed to the chair of surgery in Lund. It is characteristic that in his inauguration lecture he referred to the illness of a prominent 19th century Swedish poet, Esaias Tegner, who had suffered from periods of melancholy. Philip interpreted this as probably related to gall bladder disease, e.g. cholecystitis.  In Lund he established a productive research laboratory focusing on wound healing. He also maintained his  interest  in gall bladder diseases and described a new entity, hemobilia.

Campo espacio de paz by Eduardo
Chillida (1972), Stortorget in Lund

In the last third  of his  long  life Philip devoted  much interest  to the study  of  how illness had  influenced  the life of artists, musicians, and authors, and how this could be traced in their work3. He added new chapters to the book, which exists in five Swedish and twelve English language editions. The last Swedish edition was finished only days before his death, and before he was scheduled to give a talk in Lund. Translated into English as “Creativity and Disease: How Illness Affects Literature, Art, and Music” it deals with the illnesses and works of 32 artists and 76 writers, 36 of them poets, 12 philosophers, and 20 composers. Needless to say, it is a fascinating testament of a great humanist. The book has also been translated into Spanish and German.

In recognition of Grace and Philip Sandblom’s contributions to the humanities, The Sandblom day is featured each year on Philip’s birthday, the 29th of October, financed through a donation by the late Grace Sandblom.  On this day all seats of the main auditorium of the university hospital in Lund are filled with medical students, faculty, and citizens of Lund listening to invited speakers, performing artists and musicians. Grace and Philip would have loved to be present at these events, which are regularly attended by their children. That day is indeed a gilded bridge between medicine and the humanities. Topics have included literature, music, dance and art, and their importance in health and disease. One time it dealt with death. Large crowds attended and many  people could not be admitted, but fortunately the event was captured on a video recording.


  1. The Grace and Philip Sandblom Collection. Ulf Abel Ed. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, 1981
  2. Philip Sandblom. Skapande och sjukdom. 5th Swedish Edition. Medical Faculty in Lund, 2003
  3. Philip Sandblom. Creativity and disease. 12TH Ed. 2002

FRANK A. WOLLHEIM, MD, PhD, FRCP spent two years at the University of Minnesota from 1963–1965. He was professor and chairman of rheumatology at Lund University from 1981–1997, where he is currently an emeritus professor. He co-edited the Oxford University Press textbook Rheumatoid Arthritis and is a master member of the American College of Rheumatology.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Winter 2014 – Volume 6, Issue 1

Winter 2014   |  Sections  |  Surgery

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