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May 29, 2003

Art a constant in doctor’s life

A recent School of Medicine’s 60-year reunion doubled as an informal art show for Class of 1943-B’s Ralph Kniseley, whose 45 donated paintings adorn the halls and conference rooms of Falk Library of the Health Sciences in Scaife Hall.

The May 16 reunion reception at Falk Library marked the first time the Oak Ridge, Tenn., resident had seen these paintings mounted.

Like most of his 80 classmates, Kniseley was on inactive duty in the Armed Services while he completed his medical studies, and then after graduation in December 1943 was placed on active duty following a residency stint.

Self-effacing and sometimes satiric, Kniseley recounted his varied medical career.

After interning locally at St. Margaret’s Hospital, he was assigned to Valley Forge General Hospital — “But I wasn’t there with George Washington,” he reminded the gathering at the reception.

Although he was stateside for the duration of the war, his post-war medical career took him, among other stops, to Austria, and in this country to New Mexico, California, Idaho and Tennessee, which he now calls home.

“I started as a pathologist,” he said, “but I soon became interested in nuclear medicine,” which eventually merited him a spot as a founding member of the American Board of Nuclear Medicine (1971), followed by a three-year appointment as director of the life sciences division of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. (He didn’t work with Sigmund Freud, either, he noted, although the energy agency was around the corner from one of Freud’s offices.)

Another sea change in the mid-’70s followed, Kniseley said.

“In 1975, after I finished with my tour in Vienna, I did something that you might call ‘psychiatrically suspect,’” he said. “I went into a country practice in Idaho. Here I was in academic research for 30 years, and now I go into a country doctor’s office, which was a pretty important experience for me. I wanted to have the experience to use what you’re taught in medical school: actually working with patients,” he added with emphasis.

He served two terms as chief of staff at a hospital in Emmett, Idaho, then moved to Oakridge, Tenn., in 1994, working in clinical general practice until his retirement in 2000.

What has been constant in his life since medical school is painting, Kniseley said. He’s had regional one-person shows in Minnesota, Idaho and Tennessee, and has won several juried awards. “I paint every day,” he said, adding that since he took it up he has painted “a couple thousand paintings. Some are autobiographical, some devoted to a single topic like the palimpsests of Mayan ruins, string quartets, and other topics, including death. I start working on a theme, and then move on to something else. I knew I couldn’t make a living at it. I have no class, no style,” he exaggerated.

At the reception, Kniseley told a war story about a different war. In the early 1990s, he helped treat a group of refugees of the Gulf War. “I took care of some refugees from Iraq,” he said. “They were Kurds, who, after being in Turkey, were moved to Boise where some social program got relocated. It was a couple families; they were very wonderful people.”

The experience inspired a set of paintings around the theme of “Smutzgeiers’ (the German word for vultures) Jihad,” featuring “vultures hovering over various carcasses,” he said.

“When this last business in Iraq was starting, I resurrected some of the themes: images of soldiers and distressed people over there that showed up in the newspapers, cut up into fragments. So I’m working on that right now.”

—Peter Hart

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