Updated: May 19, 2021
There are two pieces by American painter Thomas Eakins that I really like for their medical subject matter. So this week you’re looking at The Gross Clinic (1875) and next week I’ll tackle a similar one he did more than a decade later.
In this scene, Eakins takes us into a lecture hall at Jefferson Medical College. It was familiar territory, he had watched similar procedure there himself. Dr. Samuel Gross teaches as he and his team remove necrotic bone from a patient’s infected femur. The condition is known as osteomyelitis and it had often resulted in amputation. In some cases, I think it still does.
If you study the scene long enough to be appalled, you may find yourself strangely absorbed, too. Dr. Gross presents a really self-confident and focused figure. Then I follow his arm down to where his hand rests on the table and I feel embarrassed for the patient. Not only is he disrobed and vulnerable in front of an amphitheater of onlookers, he is presented to us from an embarrassing angle. Between that and the graphic details of the surgery, I almost feel like a voyeur. I want to look away but then I don’t, so am I being pulled in against my will or something? The cold light falling over the scene is compelling, too. There is no sense of warmth or even enlightenment; it’s just unsympathetic, dim and icy. It matches the way Eakins presented the surgery’s gore so matter-of-factly, without dramatizing or downplaying it. The calm faces of the medical team contrast with the woman in black who can’t bear to watch. One tradition holds that the patient was a teenage boy and she was his mother. If that’s true she’s entrusted her child to someone else’s care and then watch them hurt him in their effort to save him. I don’t blame her for a momentary break down.
The Gross Clinic is also great as a glimpse into 19th century medicine. And you don’t have to be a healthcare worker to be aghast at that glimpse, either. The operating team is horribly unhygienic. They’re wearing frock coats rather than gowns, ones they probably wore to and from the lecture hall that day. And of course there isn’t a glove or surgical mask in sight. Who knows if the tools were sterilized or even if the team washed their hands. It’s a miracle anyone survived surgery in those days. But this was also the era in which the surgical profession transformed itself from a grizzly trade to more of a healing one. At to me that kind of historical evolution in medical practice is fascinating. The fits and starts led us to the incredible things medicine can do today. Do you ever wonder what it will achieve in the centuries after we’re gone?