Ask Alma's Owl: The Harlem Hospital Murals

Originally published Feb. 2, 2012

Ask Alma's Owl

Dear Alma,

I’ve heard that Columbians were involved in creating Harlem Hospital’s WPA murals, which have been restored for the hospital’s new building. Who were they and what did they do?

—Mural Buff

 

Dear Mural Buff:
 
Two of the five Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals, Modern Medicine and Magic in Medicine, were painted by Columbia alumnus Charles Henry Alston, who also supervised the project. Alston led a staff of 35 artists and assistants, becoming the first African American project supervisor in the Federal Art Project program. Modern Medicine, which Alston said shows “the different races working together on the same basis,” features his wife, alumnus Myra Logan, as a nurse holding a baby.
Detail of Myra Logan in Modern Medicine by Charles Alston, oil on canvas, 1940
Detail of Myra Logan in Modern Medicine by Charles Alston, oil on canvas, 1940

Alston received a B.A. from Columbia College in 1929 and an M.A. in fine arts from Teachers College in 1931. At different times in his career he was employed as a sculptor, painter, cartoonist and graphic illustrator. During World War II, he worked at the Office of War Information and Public Information, creating cartoons and posters to mobilize the black community. His work is now a part of the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Logan, who received an M.S. in psychology from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, went on to study medicine and was a resident at Harlem Hospital. She was the first woman to perform open-heart surgery and published early research on antibiotic drugs. In the 1960s, her breast cancer research led to the development of new diagnostic techniques that made it easier to detect early-stage tumors. Like Alston, Logan was committed to social issues, belonging to Planned Parenthood and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Alston and Logan married in 1943 and had no children. They were active members of the Harlem community and died within months of each other in 1977.

Harlem Hospital is currently undergoing a major modernization and expansion that in 2005 prompted conservation work on its WPA murals, which includes cleaning and stabilizing badly damaged sections of the works. They are being reinstalled in the lobby of the hospital’s New Patient Pavilion, scheduled to open this summer. Columbia helped document the mural restoration with an interactive website and documentary video, which can be seen at columbia.edu/wpamurals.

—Wilson Valentin

 

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