Last year, Marc Patterson, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, diagnosed Anna Christina Olson, a middle-aged woman from New England, with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease—a family of progressive disorders that affects the peripheral nerves and often results in problems with balance and the inability to walk. He made his assessment based on Olson’s medical history, which detailed the onset and progression of her peculiar posture and way of moving.
But Olson was not Patterson’s patient. In fact, he never even met her—she died decades earlier.
Instead, she was the subject of the painting Christina’s World, created by American realist painter Andrew Wyeth in 1948. Patterson made his conclusions as part of the annual Historical Clinicopathological Conference at the University of Maryland, where each year a physician receives the clinical history of an unnamed historical figure and then makes and presents a diagnosis in the style of medical grand rounds and guesses who the historical figure is.
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