A Show of Hands

updated 03/09/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/09/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

FOR YEARS ADMIRING PATIENTS AND COLLEAGUES noticing Dr. Adrian Flatt's long, slender fingers have offered the same flattering description: "a surgeon's hands." Flatt, who is in fact a retired orthopedic surgeon in Dallas, always responds with the same retort: "There's no such thing."

He knows whereof he speaks. Over the past four decades, Flatt, 76, has put together a veritable museum of human hands, taking bronze hand casts of scores of physicians as well as dozens of celebrities, including 7 presidents, 10 astronauts, 10 entertainers and an eclectic mix of luminaries from Ethel Merman to Norman Rockwell to Walter Cronkite. Far from revealing any patterns, his handiwork has yielded a simple conclusion: "Hands," says Flatt, professor emeritus at Dallas's Baylor University Medical Center, "are as varied as people."

Pianist Van Cliburn and magician David Copper-field, for instance, have the long, slender digits that seem well-suited to their professions. "But that's purely coincidental," observes Flatt. His mold of famed guitarist Andres Segovia—who sat for him in 1974—reveals short, stubby fingers "like hot dogs," Flatt says.

The British-born Flatt has been noting such details since being captivated by an hour-long lecture about the hand on his first day of medical school at Cambridge University. Relocating to the U.S. in 1956 to pursue a specialty as a hand surgeon, he began casting the mitts of fellow surgeons in the mid-1950s, using shoeboxes filled with the same plaster compound dentists use to create molds of teeth.

Flatt was head of the hand-surgery unit at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics when he wrote former President Dwight Eisenhower in 1963, asking him to sit for a casting. "He startled me with a yes," recalls Flatt, who cast the First Fingers while Eisenhower sat in a train at a Des Moines railway station. The same year, he cast Harry S Truman and has immortalized the hands of every subsequent president except John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. "But who knows about him," says Flatt. "He may change his mind."

Frank Sinatra, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Georgia O'Keeffe have also turned down Flatt, who has been married since 1991 to Judy Johnson, a corporate lawyer. (Andrew, his son from a previous marriage, suffered a fatal heart attack at 31 in 1991.) But his collection—now displayed at Baylor—includes casts of Paul Newman, Louis Armstrong and Katharine Hepburn. The replica of Walt Disney's hands bears the impression of his Mickey Mouse ring. When shoeboxes proved too small for the hands of wrestler Andre the Giant, Flatt used Stetson hat boxes. The meaning of the experience for Flatt's subjects was made clear by legendary actress Greer Garson, who had initially declined his invitation. A family member telephoned just four days before her death in 1996 asking Flatt to come cast her hands. Says the doctor: "People like to be remembered."

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