A Moral Dispute Over Murals
The Roth Building caused a minor scandal when it opened in 1932, thanks to several murals painted on its outer wall by muralist Victor Arnautoff. The murals depicted patients receiving care from three doctors whose contributions to the medical world Dr. Russel Lee felt were significant: pioneer pediatrician Emmett Holt, Canadian internist Sir William Osler and Boston neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing. These physicians were contrasted with their more primitive counterparts: a Native American mother using a board to reshape her child's head, a witch doctor casting out devils and a medical practitioner using a hot poker to cauterize a wound.
Arnautoff, a student of the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, chose to paint some of the patients in a state of partial undress, and the town's reaction was so intense that the controversy received news coverage all the way up in San Francisco. Under the header, "Murals and Morals: Palo Alto's Pulse Quickens," the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "The builders, aided and abetted by the nationally known doctors who make up the staff, have gone in for art in a big way, and the startling result has set this little college town by the ears!" On the first Sunday after the murals were unveiled, the stream of townspeople driving by to look caused a traffic jam along Homer Avenue. Clinic surgeon Fritz Roth threatened to have the walls whitewashed before he would move in. The furor eventually settled down, and the artwork became a fixture. When the Foundation moved to its new Palo Alto campus in 1999, vignettes of the original murals where reproduced on medallions on the front of that building.