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Video transcript

[Music] we're in the Philadelphia Museum of Art looking at two of the most famous paintings by the great American artist Thomas Eakins both about surgery and two great philadelphians who took part in that remarkable history let's start with the earlier of the two paintings this is called the grouse clinic not because anything that's happening and it is gross or disgusting although some people at the time felt that way but because we're looking at a great surgeon dr. gross and his clinic a medical class at Jefferson Medical College here in Philadelphia dr. Samuel gross was the most famous surgeon in the world he was an innovator in surgical techniques he had written a major textbook he even wrote a handbook for doctors who were treating soldiers during the Civil War Aikens had attended these classes that you see in the gross clinic he wanted to make basically a giant poster advertising the excellence of Philadelphia's medical community to show in the art exhibition at the World's Fair and this was a centennial exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary in 1876 of the United States and the theme was progress he picked dr. gross because he was an innovator in surgical techniques it took me a while to understand even what part of the body I was looking at there's a little boy who's lying on his side on the surgical table his head is far away from you underneath the gauze of the anesthesiologist and his little feet in grey socks or what's pointing at you in the foreground so you're basically looking at his thigh and also his buttocks and there are a lot of things that actually didn't seem polite to many people at the Centennial Exhibition surgery was something that happened at home hospitals were for poor people and full of infection but surgery is becoming something that heals you science was galloping forward and two things are shown in this particular surgery that illustrate that advance one of them is anesthesia the fact that you can put the patient to sleep so they don't scream and flail around surgery before it had to be done quickly the other great advance that dr. gross is demonstrating here is his new understanding of the way that bones renew this little boy the surgery 10 years earlier he would have had his leg amputated because that's the best they could have done for someone who had to have this kind of bone infection but dr. gross and his generation understood that just by cleaning out the bone it would renew and you could so the boy up and in a month he would be off and running so instead of at almost medieval brutal life-threatening surgery now you have surgical intervention that is minimal and has a happy outcome in the 21st century we take for granted the progress that was made in the 19th century to get us to where medicine is today however we can see some old-fashioned things notice that dr. gross is just wearing a suit a very snappy outfit with velvet collar he's got pocket watch and a beautiful opal stud in his shirt he's just walked in off the street at this moment in 1875 gross was resisting the newest science taught by dr. Lister the idea of the germ theory but we will see that ideas about sterile procedures changed and when Aikens goes to paint the AG new clinic he shows the doctors all in whites in sterile clothing and using surgical instruments that have been sterilized in a bath here we see the anesthesiologist administering chloroform the science of anesthesia was basically watching the patient breathe and taking a towel that had ether or chloroform on it and bringing it closer or farther away from the patient's mouth and nose but what this painting is really about is dr. gross and also Aikens as a painter Aikens is so clever in using the light to make gross seem more godlike the light came through this skylight and that's why you only had surgery at noon because there was no artificial light in the surgical amphitheater Aikens chooses to show that and that's being a realist but he makes it magic realism works for him in order to accentuate dr. grosses halo of hair his bright forehead so that you have this sense of his intelligence and of his leadership our eye goes down to that bloody hand it was the blood on the hand that got this picture knocked out of the art exhibition the jury decided that it was too scary with the public and so they showed the picture in a medical display the woman was seated on the Left who we presumed to be the patient's mother who's just in agony over the surgery she's there to represent us she's horrified and she's not a professional so she doesn't really know what's going on she contrasts to the competence of the doctors the teamwork of medicine it is gonna push American culture forward so were drawn to dr. gross we look at the man who's recording the surgery and then in the shadows two figures standing in a doorway and on the far right seated the artist himself bacons puts himself in the painting as a way to establish the credibility of his own witness of this scene and thickens as a man of science and the study's anatomy at Jefferson Medical College even as a professor he encouraged his own students to do dissections he knew a lot about the human body and he was deeply interested in anatomy and in science in general let's turn to this painting by Aikens of the Agnew clinic that was made 14 years later work instead of a vertical image with light flooding down on the heroic figure of the doctor we have a composition that's more dispersed dr. Agnew was to the University of Pennsylvania the same kind of celebrity that Samuel Gross was at Jefferson Medical College and when he retired his students collected money to make a portrait honoring his accomplishment it has a very different mood than the gross clinic the doctors are now wearing white respecting sterile procedures also the secret here is that there's now artificial light in the surgical amphitheater but the one thing that's the same is that Aikens himself is over in the corner watching the surgery in the same position that he appears in the gross clinic look at Agnew bathed in light with that white surgical gown on so what's happened is he's done the surgery he stepped back he's gonna allow the other doctors to finish the surgery and he's going to lecture and explain what happened and the prognosis for the patient and here we're seeing a kind of surgery that was more dangerous a mastectomy doctors were still learning how to best treat breast cancer this is not a happy story surgery on cancer was still mysterious and what dr. Agnew is trying to do is make this woman more comfortable because he knows that his surgery's not going to cure her so it's a darker story and it remains somewhat confusing as to why Aikens would have told a sad story like this one of pain but it may be that he was interested in showing a woman and certainly it increases your sense of compassion to be able to see the face of the patient we also see the nurse this is brand new saying that the school of nursing the nurse we see here nurse climber was one of the early graduates nurse climber is fun to compare to the mother in the grouse clinic the mother is hysterical nurse climber is educated professional completely composed she is making sure that the doctors are using sterile instruments and she's contrasted with the male students they look very much the way students look they leaning this way in that some of them pay more attention than others the students all came to a constant Ostrom so they were all portraits I think there was a certain amount of joking going on here as he depicted them in characteristic poses we also see the tray of instruments just in front of dr. Agnew in a bath that's sterilizing them so we're reminded of this recent invention of sterilizing the surgical theatre and the result is that the scalpel that he's holding is dripping water not blood dr. Agnew actually asked to be shown without as much blood because he knew that the portrait of dr. gross had been very upsetting to many people although it's still a difficult image to look at we can see a surgical implement being inserted into her chest cavity but Aikens wasn't shy of that in a way that was his goal to paint something heroic about modern life that we didn't need to pay ancient Greek gods and goddesses or the ancient historical events to paint heroes we could paint modern heroes that's what we get with both gross and dr. Agnew Aikens wants to be up there with Rembrandt and Velazquez he's intending to make a history painting for the modern age both of these paintings show teams at work and that's actually the way science works to the teamwork that you see is exactly what would send the moon so he chooses modern science as a noble and important subject for a great modern history painting [Music]