Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Did Salvador Dali follow the prolactin discovery in his painting of the fountain of milk?

Michael Yafi
Houston, Texas, United States


Salvador Dali's painting Fountain of Milk Spreading Itself Uselessly upon Three Shoes

Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Artists Rights Society © 2019

The Fountain of Milk Spreading Itself Uselessly on Three Shoes by Salvador Dali remains one of his most enigmatic works. It shows a nude woman on a pedestal, milk flowing from her breasts, while an emaciated man is staring at her.1 As he was completing the painting, Dali may have been influenced by the atrocities and deprivations of the Second World War. The woman producing the milk (mother nature, future) could be considered a symbol of hope for the sick, malnourished man (humanity) and a feature of fertility and nurturing to the small village seen in the background.

The painting is about galactorrhea, a condition in which milk is abnormally secreted from the breast. Known for centuries, it was described in 1852 in association with amenorrhea and atrophy of the uterus1,2 and in the 1950s with estrogen deficiency and pituitary tumors as a cause of decreased estrogen in women.3-7 Prolactin was discovered in the early 1930’s but its association with lactation and galactorrhea in humans was not clear until a few decades later.8 Improved molecular assays for prolactin and the development of imaging studies have helped define the association of high prolactin levels and prolactinoma as a cause of infertility.

Many of Dali’s paintings were studied from medical aspects related to heart, brain, and memory. Could he have used the description of the fountain of milk spreading itself uselessly as an indication of infertility? Perhaps as he was painting he had heard about the new hormone. Or was this just one of his fantasies about human sexuality? As we admire his painting all that we can do is speculate about this.




  1. https://www.salvador-dali.org/en/artwork/catalogue-raisonne/1940-1951/602/fountain-of-milk-spreading-itself-uselessly-upon-three-shoes.
    Salvador Dalí Museum Inc., St. Petersburg, FL
  2. Chiari J, Braum C, Spaeth J: Report of two cases of puerperal atrophy of the uterus with amenorrhea and persistent lactation. In: Klinik der Geburtshilfe and Gynecology, p 371. Erlangen, Enke, 1855
  3. Frommel R: Ueber puerperale atrophie des uterus. Gynakologue 7: 305, 1882
  4. Argonz J, DelCastillo E: A syndrome characterized by estrogenic insufficiency, galactorrhea and decreased urinary gonadotropisms. J Clin Endocrinol Metabol 13: 79, 1953
  5. Ahumada J, DelCastillo E: Amenorrhea/galactorrhea. Bol Soc Obstet Ginecol (Buenos Aires) 11: 64, 1954
  6. Forbes A, Henneman P, Griswold G, Albright F: Syndrome characterized by galactorrhea, amenorrhea and low urinary FSH: Comparison with acromegaly and normal lactation. J Clin Endocrinol Metabol 14: 265, 1954
  7. Costello RT: Subclinical adenoma of the pituitary gland. Am J Pathol 12: 205, 1936
  8. Friesen HG, The discovery of human prolactin: a very personal account. Clin Invest Med 1995 Feb;18(1):66-72.



MICHAEL YAFI, MD, is an Associate Professor and Director for The Division of Pediatric Endocrinology at UTHealth, (The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston).


Highlighted Vignette Volume 13, Issue 3– Summer 2021

Fall 2019    |  Sections  |  Art Flashes

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