LEILA FADEL, HOST:
If you walk into a scientific institution in the United States, like a medical school or a university biology department, there's a good chance you'll see a dude wall. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce explains what a dude wall is and why some people say these walls should come tumbling down.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Leslie Vosshall says the term dude wall was born at Rockefeller University in New York where she works. Just outside its main auditorium is a wall that's covered with portraits of scientists from the university who've either won the Nobel Prize or a major medical prize that sometimes called the American Nobel.
LESLIE VOSSHALL: One hundred percent of them are men, and it's probably 30 headshots of 30 men, so it's imposing.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says a few years ago, TV host Rachel Maddow came there to hand out a prestigious award that's always given to a female scientist. Vosshall says someone overheard Maddow say...
VOSSHALL: What is up with the dude wall? That was her quote. What is up with the dude wall?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Vosshall says the word dude wall crystallized something that had been bothering her for years.
VOSSHALL: It just sends the message every day when you walk by it that science consists of old white men.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She's now on a committee that's redesigning this display to add more diversity. And this isn't the only science institution having a discussion about its dude wall. At Yale School of Medicine, one main building's hallways have 55 portraits. There's three white women and 52 white men. They have a definite impact on people like Max Jordan Nguemeni Tiako. He's a black medical student who grew up reading "Harry Potter" books, which feature painted portraits that can talk.
MAX JORDAN NGUEMENI TIAKO: Like, if this was "Harry Potter" or like "Harry Potter," if they could speak, like, what would they even say to me, right? Like, everywhere you study, there's, like, a big portrait somewhere of, like, someone kind of staring you down.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yale medical student Nientara Anderson recently teamed up with a couple colleagues to study the effect of this art. The results were just published in a medical journal.
NIENTARA ANDERSON: Students felt like these portraits were not just ancient, historic things that had nothing to do with their contemporary experience - that they actually felt that the portraits reinforced contemporary issues of exclusion, of racial discrimination, of othering.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Folks at Yale are pondering what to do about all these historic portraits. One option is to move them someplace else. That was the approach taken at the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology at the University of Michigan. Ally Cara is a Ph.D. student there. She says in the department's seminar room...
ALLY CARA: We had featured portraits of our past department chairs, which happened to be all male.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The 10 or so photographs were lined up in a row.
CARA: So when our interim chair, Dr. Santiago Schnell, began his service a couple years ago, he wanted to bring a more modern update to our seminar room, including bringing down the dude wall and relocating it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The photos are now in a less noticeable spot - the department chair's office suite. The seminar room will soon be decorated with artwork depicting key discoveries made by the department.
CARA: We really want to emphasize that we're not trying to erase our history. We're proud of the people that have brought us to where we are today as a department.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She wants to emphasize this because these changes are sensitive. At Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, one of Harvard's teaching hospitals, there is an auditorium. For decades, its walls were covered with 31 paintings of men. Jeffrey Flier of Harvard Medical School says he walked in there one day...
JEFFREY FLIER: And I was taken aback because instead of this room filled with portraits of historically important figures from the Brigham, the walls were empty.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The portraits were relocated to different places around the hospital. Flier says he gets why there needed to be a change. Still, he prefers the approach taken in another Harvard meeting room. It had long been decorated with paintings of former deans.
FLIER: All of those individuals were white males. I am among them now hanging up there as the most recent former dean of Harvard Medical School.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says right there with his portrait are photographs of female and African American physician scientists. His predecessor added them to the walls. Flier says thoughtfully adding new portraits is the way to go.
FLIER: You don't want to take away the history of which you are justifiably proud.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Still, some argue that the old portraits themselves erased history, glorifying white men while ignoring the contributions made by women and minorities. One rare exception is Vivien Thomas. He was a black technician who worked for a white surgeon named Alfred Blalock at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Together, they pioneered techniques for heart surgery. Thomas only had a high school degree, but a group of top surgeons commissioned his portrait and formally presented it to the hospital in 1971. Thomas told the assembled surgeons that he felt proud and humbled.
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VIVIEN THOMAS: People in my category are not accustomed to being in the limelight as most of you are. If our names get into the print, it's usually in that very fine print down at the bottom somewhere.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He was astounded to hear the hospital plans to hang his portrait alongside its painting of Blalock. He was told you two always hung together and you should continue to hang together. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.