Artful Surgery

November 5, 2012—Plastic surgeon David Hidalgo (C’74, M’78) is world-famous for his skill with a scalpel. His current exhibition in Georgetown’s Spagnuolo Gallery showcases his artistic skill with pen and pencil.

A biology and studio art double-major, Hidalgo followed the pre-medical track from his first year on the Hilltop, deciding that “biology was the most logical major” since he wanted to become a doctor. But in his sophomore year, Hidalgo branched out, enrolling in art classes because he had loved painting and drawing since childhood.

“I brought fine arts into the picture because I’ve always wanted to do that,” Hidalgo said. “In fact, if I hadn’t done pre-med, I would have just gone to art school.”

John Morrell (C’75), chair of the art and art history department, was a senior at Georgetown when he met Hidalgo in a painting course. Morrell saw that Hidalgo had “obvious” artistic flair and talent.

“I didn’t know him well, and I didn’t know what was in his mind in terms of where he was going to be going,” Morrell recalled, “but he was doing a very large painting of cars on a racetrack, and it was a photorealistic picture. It definitely showed off his technical skills, his attention to detail, his persistence in trying to get things just right.”

Art and science are often seen as opposites in academia, but Hidalgo has cultivated not only surgical skill, but also a sense of beauty, shape, and form. As a reconstructive surgeon at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in the 1980s and ’90s, he developed new surgeries that have become standard around the world. Many of them were inspired by his fine arts background.

“The most notable one is a surgery that uses a bone from the outside of the leg—it’s not a weight-bearing bone—called the fibula. By cutting it into very precise pieces, you can make it become an exact replica of the jawbone that is removed from cancer patients who have that sort of problem,” Hidalgo explained.

“The real hardcore plastic surgery technique [is] when you hook up the blood vessels, because the blood vessels are the diameter of a matchstick. The tools that we use are finer than human hair, so it’s done under a microscope,” he continued. “That particular skill, in terms of developing that surgery, is not something I learned in medical school. It’s something I learned from my fine arts training at Georgetown.”

According to Morrell, Hidalgo is unique because of the “visual literacy” he demonstrates both on the operating table and in his sketches and paintings: an ability to picture elements or outcomes and then to make them reality.

“When you make a work of art, you think about what you want to do, but in actuality you build relationships in the painting or the sculpture that are always reassessed while in progress,” Morrell said. “In the end, the greatest works of art are never what the artists intended from the start. Eventually the picture comes out when you finally realize that everything is working together.

“David had some technical skills from art, but he also had his training in imagination,” Morrell continued. “The whole idea of being able to imagine how to reconstruct the jaw and to visualize it—it’s not just skill, it’s developing the eye to compare visuals.”

For the past 12 years, Hidalgo has been working in aesthetic surgery as opposed to reconstructive surgery. As an aesthetic plastic surgeon, Hidalgo performs operations on patients not because they have endured trauma or disease, but because they “have what they perceive to be defects,” he said.

“It’s changing the body to change the mind, and that’s more demanding than reconstructive surgery. You’re taking somebody who has nothing wrong with them, and you’re trying to make them ‘better’ by operating on them, which is a bold concept,” Hidalgo said.

“That is all about a combination of the medical skills to actually do the surgery and the visual skills to make the surgery come out the way you want.”

—Brittany Coombs


David Hidalgo, M.D.: Personal Passages is on view until December 9, 2012, in the Lucille and Richard Spagnuolo Gallery, located in Walsh 101.