Professor's longtime hobby grows into world's top collection of medically related comic art

By Robin Russell / August 2011

If you love great art, it doesn’t get any better than a good comic book, says Dr. Robert Reilly, professor of internal medicine and physiology at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

And if that comic book is medically related, all the better.

What started with collecting Spider-Man comics at age 10 has grown into the world’s largest collection of medical comic art, ranging from the Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare newspaper comic strip series from the 1960s to classic M.D. comic book covers published by EC Comics in 1955.

Robert Reilly, MD

Dr. Reilly began collecting his favorite comics as a child. As an adult, his taste became more sophisticated when his brother gave him his first piece of original comic art shortly before his death. “When I saw that original, I thought, ‘Wow, this is really neat,’” he said.

By the time he earned his medical degree, he had become fascinated with a niche market.

“There was no one out there collecting medical comic art at that time, so it was easy to obtain and it wasn’t expensive,” Dr. Reilly said. “The art is absolutely gorgeous. The mid-1950s EC Comics art is particularly intricate.”

Medical story lines for both comic books and newspaper comic strips dealt with serious topics, including drug addiction, cancer, attempted suicide and unwanted pregnancy. The strips contain fairly accurate medical information, Dr. Reilly said, but they also reveal how much state-of-the-art medical care has changed in 40 years – not to mention cultural mores.

“The relationships between doctors and nurses is particularly dated in those strips, and is almost like watching Mad Men in the 1960s,” he said.

Dr. Reilly is always looking for new and eclectic art to add to his collection. He scouts out four comic book conventions a year and he’s a regular at Heritage Auctions in Dallas.

Still on his wish list? He seeks out any popular comic strips, such as Pogo, whenever they include a medical scene. He’d love to obtain a hard-to-come-by Peanuts strip by Charles Schulz, featuring Lucy as the psychiatrist. And there’s more obscure comic art as well.

“There’s actually a character called The Kidney Lady,” he said, “a Howard the Duck character who believes Howard is engaged in a conspiracy to destroy all the kidneys in the world, and she views herself as a protector of all the kidneys.”

Some of Dr. Reilly’s medically related comic art lines his office. The rest, he’s hard-pressed to part with.

“Art leaves my collection usually in only two situations,” he said. “It’s either a gift to my son, or if I see something that I absolutely, positively have to have, then I might have to sell something to get it.”

A gallery of Dr. Reilly’s comic strip art collection is available at www.comicartfans.com.

Dr. Reilly holds the Fredric L. Coe Professorship in Nephrolithiasis Research in Mineral Metabolism.

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