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The Agnew Clinic

About 14 years after he painted The Gross Clinic, Thomas Eakins was commissioned to paint The Agnew Clinic. The chief surgeon and lecturer D. Hayes Agnew, the painting’s most prominent figure, was retiring from the University of Pennsylvania medical school in 1889.The graduating class wanted the surgeon’s portrait but obviously Eakins gave them something more. As with The Gross Clinic, we’re dropped into a medical amphitheater where a surgery is being performed for student observers. Dr. Agnew, scalpel in hand, lectures while his team finishes up a mastectomy. If you take a second to scan that crowd of students you might be more entertained than you would think at first glance. There are clearly varying levels of interest there. Maybe medical students are sometimes just students, too.

When I hold this up next to The Gross Clinic, a few contrasts and similarities stand out. The light is much warmer here, which you may prefer to the cold, pale light in the former work. Advances in surgical practice are evident, too: this team is wearing gowns and using sterilized instruments. You can tell that because they are kept in a closed box there to Dr. Agnew’s left rather than laying out in the open foreground as before. We also know the names of the attending surgeons in this one. They were so well done, in fact, that they were recognized almost immediately once the piece went public. We get a nurse in this one, too, and we know that her name was Mary Clymer. The nurse training program at the University of Pennsylvania had only existed a few years by this time and she was among one of its earliest graduating classes. Those are some of the contrasts. As for similarities, though, we still see an embarrassingly vulnerable patient. We know it wasn’t Dr. Agnew’s practice to sprawl women out like half nude sides of beef on the table like we see here. His policy was to keep the healthy breast covered and only expose the endangered one. Knowing that to be the case, which it seems accepted that he did, why Eakins flopped that poor girl’s boobs out there like that is a mystery. Shock maybe?

The painting is a whopping 7’ by 11’ and it was presented at the university commencement in 1889. By popular applause, Dr. Agnew was asked to say a few words. He took the rostrum and began but too overcome by emotion to say very much. The best he could manage after recovering composure was to wish the graduates well in their future profession. From everything I’ve read, it sounds like one of those moments you live and then relive for years to come.

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