Robert C. Hinckley

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First Operation Under Ether

Hinckley, Robert

Last Updated: Jun-30-2006
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas


The dentist, William Thomas Green Morton, gave the first successful public demonstration of anesthesia on October 16, 1846 at the Massachusetts General Hospital. This painting depicts the patient, Gilbert Abbot, sitting in a chair in the surgical amphitheater, eyes closed and neck exposed for the excision of a small vascular tumor of the jaw.

The surgeon, John Collins Warren, a distinguished Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School is leaning slightly forward, delicately holding a surgical tool vertically at the hidden point of incision. Morton holds his specially designed glass apparatus used to contain the anesthetic agent, ether.

Eleven other men watch the proceedings from the floor of the amphitheater, with varying levels of surprise and concentration. One is rising, as if in amazement, from a chair, and another steps up on a chair to see better. Two attend the patient: one holds his head and the other holds the right hand and checks the pulse at the wrist. Numerous men are seated in the gallery, and are painted with less and less detail, the higher the row.

The men are all dressed formally in dark suits, some with fur lapels, except for the patient, who is in white shirt with tan pants and dark shoes. This operation occurred before antisepsis and germ theory were discovered.

Hinckley used light and line to focus attention on the surgery. A strong diagonal line from the side wall of the gallery ends at Warren’s head. Light reflects off Morton’s ether inhaler, such that one can even see the sponge inside. The white of the patient’s shirt and the cloth and bowl on the instrument table in the foreground also serve to direct attention to the operation. Light glints off the surgeon’s head, although not as dramatically as in Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic (see this database). Warren’s pronouncement at the end of the surgery, "Gentlemen, this is no humbug," paved the way for the rapid acceptance of anesthesia for surgery.

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