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Photographer Karsh Salutes a World He Hoped as a Boy to Enter—Medicine

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When I came to America from troubled Armenia in 1925,” recalls the famed photographer Yousuf Karsh, 67, “I expected all my relatives to be enormously wealthy. I hoped to fulfill my boyhood dream of becoming a doctor.”

Instead, Karsh found himself packed off to live with his Uncle Nakash, a photographer living in Sherbrooke, Quebec. There, with a small Kodak, Karsh began snapping pictures as Christmas gifts for schoolmates. Unbeknownst to him, one was entered in a photography contest—and Karsh won first prize, $50 in gold.

That steered him away from medicine as a career, and soon after Karsh was apprenticed to John H. Garo, an Armenian photographer in Boston. Eventually, of course, Karsh became one of the great portrait photographers of the age. Winston Churchill, Nikita Khrushchev and hundreds of other historic figures have been captured by his sensitive, probing lens.

Yet for all his fame in his own profession, Karsh never lost his boyhood reverence for medicine and its practitioners. It was with special pleasure, then, that Karsh recently unveiled a collection at the Boston Medical Library of 18 portfolio-size portraits of famous physicians and scientists, entitled “Healers of Our Age.”

“This particular exhibition has greater meaning to me than any others, since I transferred my desire to become a doctor to photographing doctors and thus preserving their work,” says Karsh. He acknowledges the inspiration for the show was his wife, Estrellita, a medical writer and historian, to whom he has been married for 13 years. They live in Ottawa. The massive portraits of such figures as Albert Einstein, medical popularizer Dr. Walter Alvarez and Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung were a gift to the library. Karsh stipulated that limited editions of the photographs be given to anyone donating $500 or more to the medical library.

The exhibition, which will also be shown later at Johns Hopkins, focuses with unusual intensity and affection on Karsh’s medical heroes. What impressed him was the simplicity and humility of the doctors and scientists he has photographed. “Arrogance is never part of the great physician,” he observes. “One is likely to find vanity. But that is necessary. Vanity is self-enoblement striving for perfection. It makes a person want to do things his way: but correctly.”