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An artist’s interpretation - The first public demonstration of anesthesia

Although depictions of the world-famous 1846 ether operation abound, perhaps none have received such attention as that completed by Robert Hinkley in 1893. According to a 1960 article in The New England Journal of Medicine, Hinkley, an American portrait painter who studied at the Paris Ecole des Beaux Arts, in 1882 began his painting of the ether demonstration as a speculative work and took 11 years to complete it. The painting lay unwanted in his studio until 1903, when it was accepted by the Boston Medical Library. From that point on, it received a great deal of attention, much of it unfavorable.

The Bigelow family was rumored to have objected strenuously to the depiction of family scion Henry J. Bigelow, MD, who is shown with his hands clutched to his chest and grim face averted from the operation, a notable exception to the rapt gazes of others depicted. More important, critics soon pointed to the work’s historical inaccuracy. J. Mason Warren, MD; George Hayward, MD; and A. Lawrence Pierson, MD, all MGH staff members and prominent physicians of the day, are shown huddled around the operating chair. All three testified before a Congressional committee in 1849 that they had been absent from the Oct. 16, 1846 demonstration. Additionally, some of the spectators shown in Hinkley’s gallery later were proven to have been elsewhere on the day of the historic surgery.

In his defense, some art historians posit that Hinkley intended the painting to serve not as a historical representation but as a composite of the most distinguished medical professionals of the day and that he chose the era’s most notable medical discovery — the use of ether to achieve painless surgery — as a device to unify his allegory. The Hinkley painting today hangs in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Also see Who's Who on Ether Day.

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