Eakins, Thomas (American, 1844-1916)

The Agnew Clinic

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Here is Dr. David Hayes Agnew (1818-1892) performing a simple mastectomy at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital . Despite Dr. Samuel Gross’s contempt, Americans soon embraced the European carbolic treatment; however, although William Halsted at Johns Hopkins had adopted surgical gloves, they were not yet in wide use. Dr. Agnew graduated from the University of Pennsylvania medical school in 1838. Determined to become a surgeon in the late 1840s, he often disinterred bodies from Potter’s Field, especially during a cholera epidemic. In 1852, he purchased the Philadelphia School of Anatomy, which provided private dissecting rooms for Philadelphia doctors and their students. In 1854 he established the Philadelphia School of Operative Surgery. An established leader in his field, he served at two army hospitals during the Civil War and was called in as chief consultant when President Garfield was shot in 1881. This painting, commissioned by Agnew’s students in honor of his resignation as Professor of Surgery at Penn, was shown at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893. Although Dr. Agnew, who had asked that no blood be shown on his hands, and his students were very pleased, most of the critics agreed with this comment: “It is impossible to escape Mr. Eakins’s ghastly symphonies in gore and bitumen. Delicate or sensitive women or children suddenly confronted by the portrayal of these clinical horrors might receive a shock from which they would never recover. To have hung the pictures at all was questionable judgment. To have hung them where they are [in the main gallery, where anyone could see them] is most reprehensible.” (Quoted in The Revenge of Thomas Eakins by Sidney Kirkpatrick, 2006, page 398.) Notes by Dr. Linda Pessar and Mariann Smith
Art of Medicine
History of Medicine
University of Pennsylvania, School of Medicine, Philadelphia