Black History Month lecture explores a doctor's journey of expression and care through the comic arts

January 5, 2024

The comic arts often push limits and tackle complex topics within a simple narrative with engaging characters and snappy dialog. An emerging literary field–graphic medicine–presents  public health information in comics forms and has depicted deeply revealing individual experiences with health issues, including breast cancer, deafness, mental illness and HIV/AIDS. Conveying complex medical topics through comic arts is particularly effective for patient education for health care consumers with limited literacy or who are non-native speakers.

The 2024 Black History Month Lecturer brings a fresh and singular voice to this artform.

Shirlene Obuobi, M.D., is a Ghanaian-American physician and cartoonist. She will deliver VCU Libraries’ Black History Month Lecture on Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. at James Branch Cabell Library. Her topic will be “Narrative Medicine and Identity.” Registration for the free event, both in-person and on Zoom, is open.

Obuobi is a third-year general cardiology fellow at The University of Chicago Medical Center, where she also completed medical school and internal medicine residency.

Born in Ghana, Obuobi came with her family to the United States when she was 6 years old. She grew up in Chicago, Hot Springs, Arkansas and The Woodlands, Texas. She attended Washington University in St. Louis. She has always had a passion for creating and is a self-taught artist and writer.  

Her comics focus on the challenges of being a Ghanaian-American woman in medicine and the stresses and challenges of medical school. She has gained nearly 38,000 followers on her Instagram account. Her comics have been featured in UChicago Medicine, Proto Magazine and the Medical University of Vienna’s “Art, Action, Attitude/Body” exhibit. Her comics explore the challenges of medical school and developing a professional identity among other themes.

Medical educators are becoming more aware of the potential value of the comic arts not only in patient education but in the education of future physicians and as an avenue for social critique of the medical profession. Bias is a frequent theme in Obuobi’s comics. She’s drawn about sexism, racism, stereotyping and major and microaggressions and physicians’ frustrations with medical insurance. 

“Graphic medicine offers a powerful, accessible way to explore difficult topics ranging from stigma, racism and sexism,” said Teresa L. Knott, associate university librarian and director of the VCU Health Sciences Library. “As the old saying goes, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ This is certainly true of Dr. Shirlene Obuobi and her work including her ShirlyWhirlMD cartoons, shared through Instagram. She uses cartooning and art to explore difficult issues in health and society often in the context of medical education and physician training.

“I am excited that Dr. Obuobi will deliver the VCU Libraries Annual Black History Lecture because she tells powerful stories and represents the intersection between arts, humanism, and health sciences much like VCU does for our community.”

Read Shirly Whirly, M.D. on Instagram at @shirlywhirlmd  

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