Students Study Mason Statue

Posted: August 30, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

The statue of George Mason that stands at the center of the Fairfax Campus has been used to publicize events on campus, give students good luck on exams and provide a backdrop for graduation photos. But Jim Metcalf, professor of global and community health, came up with another use for the statue: teaching tool.

Metcalf, who taught the new Health Science 506 Clinical Exercise Physiology course last spring for the first time, was familiar with the origins of the statue, designed by sculptor Wendy Ross. He interviewed her for GMU-TV when the statue was unveiled in 1996.

He knew she had done meticulous research on George Mason, the 18th-century statesman and author of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, and discovered he suffered from an ailment believed to be gout. Gout is a metabolic disease marked by a painful inflammation of the joints caused by deposits of urates, salts of uric acid.

In an interview with the Gazette earlier this year, Ross said, “In the course of reading historical biographies on Mason, I discovered he had recurring bouts with gout, which affected his mobility and made him reluctant to travel long distances. In the standing figure, I positioned his right hand to rest gently but supportively atop a stack of books on his desk. He is leaning slightly forward and his right leg is slightly ‘bowed’ as if not capable of supporting his full weight unaided.”

Metcalf decided “it would be a fun thing to do” to have his class examine the statue and develop a “diagnosis” of Mason’s condition based on the physical evidence. Since there are no authentic representations of Mason existent, the students had only the statue to go by.

For expert assistance, Metcalf called on his colleague Lynn Gerber, director of the Center for the Study of Chronic Illness and Disability in the College of Health and Human Services. Gerber, a physician who is board certified in rheumatology, accompanied the class on a field trip to the statue and walked them through an examination of the “patient,” demonstrating how to take anthropometric measurements of his joint angles to determine their alignment.

Lynn Gerber explains the physical exam
Rheumatologist Lynn Gerber explains the physical exam as professor Jim Metcalf and students in the Clinical Exercise Physiology course listen.

The physical examination can often help the clinician in making a medical diagnosis or in suggesting which additional investigations are needed to do so, Gerber points out. Based on the physical “exam,” she suggested the likely clinical diagnosis the class finally reached.

The class wrote up their findings as follows:

“We examined the George Mason portrait with particular attention to selected joint angles and posture. We found right knee varus (22 degrees), possible right subtalar varus, and tibia in varus. The left knee was in valgus (10 degrees). [The term “varus” implies curving away from the midline. The term “valgus” implies curving toward the midline.] Left foot pronation was suspected but could not be confirmed because the shoe could not be removed. Neither shoe showed abnormal wear patterns. In addition, the right knee was hyperextended, a condition called recurvatum.

“Posture was suggestive of forward motion. Vertebral alignment could not be assessed adequately as clothing prevented visual inspection of the vertebral column and made it impossible to locate precisely the vertebrae. We made no assessments of the pelvis in the transverse/rotational plane nor the presence of a possible pelvic obliquity because we were unable to locate the anterior superior iliac spine.

“Distal interphalangeal joints appeared normal in both hands. We found no tophi (deposition of urates). Finger joints showed neither Heberden’s nodes, swelling of the distal interphalangeal joints, nor any other evidence of osteoarthritis.”

In short, Metcalf says, one could conclude from the statue portrayal that Mason had abnormal alignment of the joints of the lower legs, possibly indicating degenerative arthritis (osteoarthritis) or abnormalities of ligaments.

However, he adds, in the absence of tophi of the small joints, or swelling of the large joints, it would be difficult to attribute these findings to gout.

All in all, Metcalf says, the sculptor was successful in conveying that Mason was “in obvious discomfort,” but that he was still dynamic and moving forward despite his impairments.

Lynn Gerber demonstrates measurements
Gerber demonstrates how to take measurements using a goniometer.
Photos courtesy of Jim Metcalf

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