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Helen Taussig
August 31, 2011  |  by Bret McCabe

According to Nancy McCall, Helen Taussig didn’t appreciate this portrait by now revered painter Jamie Wyeth—perhaps because it reminded her of a difficult moment in her life. Taussig spent nearly four decades working in pediatric cardiology at Johns Hopkins Hospital and more than 50 years teaching in the School of Medicine, where, in 1959, she was only the second woman to be named a full professor. When she retired from the hospital in 1963, the pediatric cardiology faculty and fellows commissioned her portrait. They wanted Andrew Wyeth, whom Taussig knew through a colleague. He wasn’t available, but he recommended his teenage son, Jamie. “Pediatric cardiology was not a wealthy department,” McCall says. “And [Andrew Wyeth] said that Jamie was coming along very well. And, of course, Jamie’s price was right, so the fellows commissioned Jamie.”

The sitting was to take place over a summer weekend on Cape Cod, where the Wyeths and Taussig’s family had vacation homes. The week before, though, had been difficult for Taussig. Her department was closing the fiscal year with deficits. One of her former patients, a teenager whom she had treated since infancy, was hospitalized and died. “So having to contend with all that, she then drove, late into the night, by herself, clear up to Cape Cod, and was sitting in front of this teenager in the morning,” McCall says. “It’s an extraordinary portrait, very stark, and I think there’s probably a great deal of verisimilitude to what she looked like after that week.”


19 Comments


  1. I am Helen Taussig’s niece. I was at her house on Cape Cod during the time that Jaime Wyeth painted his portrait of her. Jamie wss just a teenager then, and had not developed any skills as a portrait painter. The suggestion that the portrait reflects some state of stress Aunt Helen was experiencing is totally inaccurate–an incorrect conclusion drawn from mere speculation. She was very philosophical about the unfortunate events mentioned in that article, and though she was capable of deep, compassionate feelings, that picture shows nothing of what was in her heart at the time. The portrait captures very little of what Aunt Helen really looked like. The features and expression are totally wrong.

    • My name is Bill Evans, I am a pediatric cardiologist and medical historian. I have written several articles, published primarily in the journal Cardiology in the Young, about Helen Taussig based on material contained in the Johns Hopkins archives and other primary source material. I have seen this painting in real life in the archives. Personally, I like the portrait a lot. I like her steely blue eyes and powerful demeanor. She appears to be gazing beyond her time and into the future, a future that she helped lay the foundation for, now including methods of care that can render a near 100% survival for conditions that once had a 100% certainty of death. She lived in a medical world ruled by men and her strength and determination (well displayed in this portrait) were necessary gifts that allowed her to achieve so much. I know this portrait has been controversial, and I appreciate, respect, and understand her niece’s feelings, but personally, as an admirer, pediatric cardiologist, and historian, I think it is marvelous.

    • Hi Mary, my name is Cathie. I have some wonderful stories to tell about your Aunt. My parents credit her with saving my life. I came across a movie on Netflix, googled and binged and came upon your Aunt’s biography. After reading it, I immediately called my mother to ask her if she remembers who my Doctor at John’s Hopkins was. She immediately said “Dr. Helen Toussig.”

      I was born with a ventrical septal defect in 1958. My parents were terrified when the pediatrician told them I had a very unusual heart murmur. The doctor advised them he wanted me to be seen at Johns Hopkins Hospital. My parents were scared and concerned, and also wondering where they were going to get the money to take me and my brother all the way down to Baltimore to see a doctor. We lived in NYC. When Dr. Cohen said to my mother “if it was my child I would want them to have the best” the decision was made. This became the first of 12 yearly trips down to Baltimore for my family. I have a very vague memory of Dr. Taussig, sitting on an examination table,in her presence. I do remember NOT feeling scared. My mother shared 2 stories with me that she says has made her forever grateful to your Aunt. The first was Dr. Toussig’s advice. She told my parents to let me be a child, to let me run and play, to punish me as needed and NOT to spoil this child just because she has a heart defect”. She told my parents she wanted to monitor me, and explained to them that the heart muscle will grow as I age, and she wants to watch if the hole grows along with the muscle, as this would be a deciding factor to either rule in or rule out surgery. God was good; the hole did not grow and I went on to live a normal childhood. At age 3, your Aunt told my parents that surgery would not be necessary. My mother very distinctly remembers an incident at one of my yearly visits. Another doctor was discussing my case with 2 interns and wanted to do a heart catheterization on me. When they approached your Aunt about this possibility, Dr. Toussig’s reply was “How dare you? You are NOT PRACTICING ON MY CHILDREN”. My mother says there was never any doubt in her mind after that day that her child had the best doctor she could ever hope for. I continued at Johns Hopkins after your Aunt retired, and was discharged to my pediatrician at age 12. I am now 55 years old.

      I thanked my mother today for making it possible for me to be seen by your Aunt as a child. I am so impressed by her and all she accomplished as a doctor and a woman. I came across this picture and your comments as I researched this remarkable woman. I can only say that from my mother’s and my personal experience, Dr. Toussig was a very kind, sympathetic and wonderful woman who protected her patients, helped to give me the best life possible regardless of the medical limitations at the time, and gave my mother the best advice ever about raising a child with a heart defect. My mother said today she realizes she didn’t spank me enough!

      I feel privileged to have been one of the many children whose lives were made possible by your Aunt.

  2. The memories of your Aunt Helen are yours, and yours alone and you should cherish them.

    By the same token others may have different experiences/perspectives that are individual to them. This is what make portraiture so problematic, IMHO.

    A portrait goes through many generations of attitudes reflecting upon it. It ‘speaks’ to each of us as all art works do. Somehow, though, we lose that ‘abstraction’ and portraits are supposed to ‘represent the ‘true’ sitter.

    Though I am a novice at this, your perspective seems to suffer from an unfortunate human condition. I’m sure your Aunt was a complicated woman, w/many different aspects – some more apparent than others. By this way of thinking, Mr. Wyeth’s work evokes genius, transcending cliche, and appealing to many different people, over generations, all for different reasons/sensibilities. None of them are ‘true’ as no two dimensional inanimate image can. The genius is in it’s ability to connect the living w/the dead.

    I’m sorry for your loss; don’t forget to cherish your memories. Peace.

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