top of page

The picture that reminds me of my old profession.

Doctor's Dilemma!

Sir Luke Fildes, The Doctor, 1891 | Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) Photo © Tate


I came across this most thought-provoking painting in one of my trips to Tate Britain as part of my cultural rehabilitation.

The painting depicts a Victorian Doctor, most probably a General Practitioner, visiting a sick child who is laid on a makeshift bed of two chairs. The well-tailored doctor sits in deep contemplation observing the prostrate child, while the child’s father, ruggedly dressed and stoical looks on, one consoling hand on his wife’s shoulder. The mother is the most distressed person in the painting, unable to face the potentially impending sad news, her face hidden, her hands clasped together in prayer.

The dimly lit room is probably the only room of the house. Half empty bottles of medicine, and a crinkled prescription lie on the floor suggesting that the doctor may have exhausted all possible avenues for a cure. Is this doctor thinking, ‘what can I do to save this child?’ or ‘How am I going to break the bad news to the parents?’

The painting depicts the vast social gap that existed in Victorian England, a well-dressed doctor represents the comfortable professional middle class, attending a working class family who live a humble, rugged lifestyle. The bed made of unmatched chairs, torn carpets, well-worn blankets to ward off the cold, and an unframed window all represent the abject poverty the working class encountered during this period. There are no other children in the vicinity, as most probably this room may be the only space they have. Imagine the anguish they have if this is their only child!

Despite the grim scene, the main subject of the painting - the doctor and patient are illuminated with the light of the breaking dawn - I try my best to reassure myself that this light, this glimmer of hope, suggests that the child may be recovering, that there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

The painting is by Sir Luke Fields, a popular Victorian ‘social realist’ painter of his day, it was commissioned by Sir Henry Tate. The scene draws on Sir Luke’s personal experience of the death of his young son, sharing his grief and paying a tribute to the caring doctor who attended his sons illness. Early childhood mortality was a horrifying reality of life in Victorian Britain. In 1840, about a third of children born died before the age of five. In 1851 Charles Darwin was so devastated by the loss of his dearly loved infant daughter Annie, it led him to seriously question his faith in god, ultimately motivating him to publish his controversial and ground breaking 1859 book On the Origin of Species, his theory of evolution.

As a doctor I never practiced as a paediatrician. My batch mates who I went to university with, may have faced many such situations! How did they cope with a situation like this? Later I read that this painting has been used by the American Medical Association to promote the nobility of the caring doctors. None of my children elected to study medicine, unlike the vast majority of the children of my batch mates. They must be immensely proud of them to have chosen such a caring noble profession.

If you have experienced similar dilemma I love to hear from you. Please write to

Jayantha Premachandra


bottom of page