Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Abram Belskie: Sculptor of medical medallions

Enrique Chaves-Carballo
Kansas City, Kansas, United States

Abram Belskie at work (circa 1948). Personal collection, Belskie Family. Via Wikimedia.

Abram Belskie was born in London on March 27, 1907. He studied painting and sculpture at the Glasgow School of Art and received a scholarship to further his studies in Europe. In 1929 he moved to New York City, where he assisted sculptor John Gregory for three years in the creation of twelve bas-relief panels depicting scenes from the plays of William Shakespeare for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. In 1931 he moved to Closter, New Jersey to work in Robert Baillie’s stone carving studio and later became an American citizen. The Maternity Center Association of New York commissioned Belskie and Dr. Robert Dickinson to create life-size bas-reliefs of the stages of pregnancy from conception to birth for the Hall of Man Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The exhibit was seen by more than two million visitors and the sculptures were reproduced photographically in Birth Atlas: Reproductions of 24 Life Size Sculptures of Fertilization, Growth, Stages of Labor, and Involution.

Belskie designed his first medical medal to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in 1953. Two years later he designed a bronze plaque for Battery Park in New York City to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the first Jewish immigrants in America. Although he was of Jewish ancestry, Belskie was not a practicing Jew.

Belskie received many awards, including those from the National Sculpture Society, the American Numismatic Society, and Allied Artists of America. He also designed the Thomas Jefferson Medal and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Medal. Between 1969 and 1974 Belskie created 50 Great Men of Medicine, a historical review of notable scientists and doctors from Hippocrates to George Minot as selected by medical historians. Belskie was named “Sculptor of the Year” by the American Numismatic Society in 1974.

Beslkie’s collaboration with Dr. Robert L. Dickinson resulted in the acclaimed Birth Series and the Heart Series for the American Heart Association. Based on Dickinson’s anatomical measurements made on 20,000 Caucasian patients, Belskie produced two life-size sculptures of a man and a woman. His work led him to a faculty position at New York Medical College, where he taught using anatomical models. He was considered the first forensic artist, pioneering the field of post-mortem feature reconstruction. Belskie combined two apparently disparate disciplines—art and medicine—and won acclaim in both worlds. He remarked: “I like it because it combines both art and science. I don’t think, really, there’s any barrier between them. If the combination was good enough for Leonardo da Vinci, it’s good enough for me.”

Numismatics (from the Greek numisma, meaning current coins or currency) is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the study or collection of coins, paper currency, and medals. Medals resemble coins in size while medallions are 80 mm or larger in size. The process of making a medal or medallion is arduous and complicated, requiring special tools and techniques. Belskie himself started with a sketch, usually made on paper with pencil or with clay. Next came modeling, in which small clay pellets were added and shaped with a wire tool or boaster made of wood. Once the design was completed, a plaster of Paris cast was made of the model by coating it, then hardened by baking in an oven. Final touches were made on this negative plaster, which was then coated to make a “positive” rendition and sent to the mint or medal maker, who cut the dies used to strike the coin or medal in bronze or silver. As Belskie himself acknowledged, “Life is short, Art is long and Experience difficult.”

Belskie died on November 17, 1988. The Belskie Museum of Art and Science opened in 1994 in Closter, New Jersey, and focuses on 130 medals and medallions he designed in an exhibit entitled Numismatics: The Art of Coins and Medals curated by D. Wayne Johnson, corporate historian and senior consultant for Medallic Art Company (http://medallic.com). Although Belskie was quiet and retiring, he left a generous legacy of almost 400 medallions and other works of art to be admired by future generations.


Johnson D. Wayne. Numismatics: The art of coins and medals featuring the work of Abram Belskie and USA members of FIDEM (Féderation Internationale de la Médaille d’Art). Brochure in conjunction with exhibit, September 13-November 15, 2009. Belskie Museum of Art & Science, Closter, N.J. 07624, 48 pp.

ENRIQUE CHAVES-CARBALLO, MD, is a pediatric neurologist and clinical professor emeritus, Department of History and Philosophy of Medicine, Kansas University Medical Center. He received his medical degree from the University of Oklahoma and trained in pediatrics and neurology at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN. His main research interest is the medical history of the Panama Canal and he has published several articles and books on tropical diseases, yellow fever, malaria, and Darling.

Winter 2021



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