The story behind the great master’s art – Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at Her Bath and Breast Cancer

Oct 18 • Empowering Women, Living with Chronic Illness, The Brave Discussion Movement • 2519 Views • No Comments

In the early nineties I led the PR account for the Medical Benefits Fund of Australia (MBF) – now Bupa. The fund had recently acquired the Sydney Square Breast Clinic and chose to use Rembrandt’s Bathsheba in their Breast Health public relations campaign which aimed to raise awareness of the importance of screening mammography for women over forty. It was a groundbreaking campaign, for the first time women were being encouraged to take control of their own breast health.

About the painting – Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at Her Bath

In 1967, while touring the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Italian surgeon and art aficionado T.C. Greco noticed discoloration and swelling in the breast of the naked figure of Bathsheba in Rembrant’s painting, Bathsheba at Her Bath. Intrigued, Greco researched the existing sources on the genesis of the painting and discovered that Rembrandt’s model for the figure, who was his mistress, had died after a long illness. As a result of his research, Greco wrote a renowned article in which he contended that Rembrandt’s model had suffered from breast cancer. Thus begins James Olson’s absorbing and comprehensive history of breast cancer and its treatment over the millennia.

Health Promotion Movement Building Requires Good Science and Good Art

For today’s story, I’d like to do a little evidence-based marketing for health promotion. Just like good medicine, good health promotion not only requires good science but it also yearns for good art and a good story.

Science, as we know, is the “systematic study of the nature and behaviour of the material and physical universe based on observation, experimentation and measurement. It provides us with an understanding of the scope, frequency and determinants of disease and health behaviours, and gives us the knowledge to build systems, services, communications, laws and regulations.

Art is the ‘exercise of human skill, the skill governing a particular human activity’. This encompasses advocacy, communication, shaping public opinion, constituency building, and information dissemination.

Successful health promotion relies on the art of putting new ideas into action, and, as importantly, applying what is already known. Even if there were no new scientific breakthroughs for another ten years we could still easily reduce premature death considerably through what is the core art of public health – advocacy.

The painting starred in a public awareness campaign which illustrates perfectly (and literally) how art and science can work in unison for a successful health promotion outcome.

The painting depicts Rembrandt’s common law wife with what is now known to be advanced breast cancer – dimpling and darkening of the left breast.

The campaign was so successful that it resulted in the Breast Clinic Information Line receiving 2500 calls within the ten days from the programmes launch, and a 700 per cent rise in calls for clinic appointments.

This campaign won numerous national and international awards including the global United Nations PR Award for Communicating Priority Issues. It was also featured in the late Professor Sam Black’s book of the best PR case studies.

Footnote: Some years later it was a privilege to be invited back to develop another campaign for the Sydney Breast Clinic, this time for their 30th Birthday Celebrations. We featured that story earlier this week on The Brave Discussion - the courageous story of Dr. Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald. A story that made headlines around the world in 1999, as a breast cancer stricken doctor, Dr. Jerri Nielsen, stranded at a South Pole research station who under dangerous circumstances, and with the help of co-workers, treated her own illness.


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