Sometime in the 1950s, a British medical historian discovered some previously unpublished data on the Giocondo family of Florence. Lisa, the wife of Francesco, was the model for da Vinci’s famous portrait, and the data in question offered strong evidence that she was in the early stages of pregnancy when she was painted.
Thereupon there was much speculation as to whether her enigmatic smile was causally related to her delicate condition.
Eventually, every two-bit psychiatrist tried to get into the act, and for weeks the correspondence columns of reputable medical journals carried letters offering hormonal, sociological or psychiatric explanations for the smile.
Even the sedate and erudite New England Journal of Medicine carried its share of letters.
Finally I could stand this twaddle no longer and scrawled a postal to the Journal editor, Dr. Joe Garland, pointing out that it was obvious to any clinician of experience that this sly smile could mean only one thing: the lady had just discovered that she was not pregnant.
Garland, who had a puckish sense of humor, forthwith added my postal to the rest of the rubbish on the subject in the “Letters to the Editor.”
To my horror, it was picked up and republished by various medical reprint and summary publications and finally by the Reader’s Digest.
I don’t think that my reputation as an art critic was thereby firmly established, but it ended the avalanche of mail from the wise guys.
Allen S. Johnson was a doctor. Photo by Jean Pierre / Pexels