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Vincent’s ear—and Gaby’s arm
  1. John Launer
  1. Postgraduate Medical Journal, London WC1H 9JP, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr John Launer, Postgraduate Medical Journal, London WC1H 9JP, UK; johnlauner{at}

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Two nights before Christmas, close to midnight, a 19-year-old woman called Gaby was summoned down to the foyer of her workplace, in the southern French town of Arles. A skinny, red-headed man was at the front door, asking for her. He had brought her a gift, wrapped in newspaper. She recognised him as a regular client of the place. He lived around the corner in a rented house, along with a large, boisterous friend. They were both painters, and the red-headed one was a foreigner. He spoke French well, but with a strong accent that some of the locals thought was Polish, although it was in fact Dutch. As he handed over the gift, she may have noticed that the left side of his face was injured and bleeding. On unwrapping the paper, she would have realised why. He had given her his left ear, which he had sliced off with a cut-throat razor earlier that evening. She promptly fainted.

The artist, Vincent van Gogh, was unknown at the time, although after his death he became possibly the best known painter in the world, and one of the most valuable. His housemate was Paul Gauguin, who later became almost as famous. The story of their brief and turbulent friendship during these 9 weeks in 1888 has been the subject of many articles and entire books, detailing their immense artistic creativity, their drunken arguments and their catastrophic falling out.1 2 Everyone knows that he cutoff his ear (see figure 1), but the young woman to whom he presented it has disappeared from sight. Along with so many women who happened to be third parties in the stories of famous men, history has assigned her the very smallest …

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