In today's History of Medicine Society Lecture, Surgery's Entry into its Modern Era: Depicted by the Art of the Times, lecturer Dr. J. Patrick O'Leary expounded on three great works of art: Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1432), and Thomas Eakins' two masterpieces, Gross Clinic (1876) and Agnew Clinic (1890).
O'Leary discussed the advance of surgery as seen in these paintings, from the domineering exhibition of the Renaissance master (complete with anatomical error) to the horror and gore of the surgical amphitheatre of Gross' day, tempered only two short decades later by refined anesthesiological practices, a didactic approach to surgical displays, and the team approach of the surgeon, resident, anesthesiologist, and scrub nurse.
One of the more interesting details discussed by O'Leary was the positioning of Dr. Tulp's hands in Rembrandt's depiction: his left hand is turned into the prehensile grip, not only a reminder of the superiority of man over ape, but also the hand position that is controlled by the forearm muscles that Tulp is probing in the cadaver. While many scholars would argue that several of the spectators are looking at this pose, O'Leary instead believes that the men are looking beyond Tulp's hands to the book beyond--signifying the power of knowledge and the written word, this just three decades after Gutenberg's first printing.
Masterpieces, all. And a fitting subject, in light of recent press reports about the fate of the Gross Clinic, finally secured for posterity by the coordinated efforts of humanistic Philadelphians.
If you missed the talk but are interested in seeing the full version, stay tuned: the streaming video of the presentation will soon be available on our web site. A copy will also be cataloged and made available for checkout through the Main Library A/V Room.