Professor Samuel D. Gross of Jefferson Medical College is demonstrating an operation for osteomyelitis of the femur in the surgical amphitheater in 1875 in this highly dramatic, powerful scene. Light glints off his forehead, and his visage is stern, calm, and surrounded by a halo of gray-white hair. The bloody fingers of his right hand hold a blood-tipped scalpel. He appears to have just made an incision and is turning away to demonstrate his work.

To the surgeon’s left is the patient, lying in right lateral decubitus position, with exposed leg and buttocks. Assistants are retracting the wound, further dissecting within it, and holding the patient’s legs. Blood is on their hands, instruments, and the patient’s leg. The patient’s face is obscured by the chloroform soaked towel that the anesthetist is using to administer general anesthesia. The white of this towel and the operating table’s sheet are the only other bright white values besides the surgeon’s head in this mostly dark painting.

Adding to the drama is the stricken pose of the patient’s female relative--to the surgeon’s right. For charity cases, a family member was required to be present during the surgery. She averts her head and raises her hands, clenched in a claw-like fashion, to block her view.

In the gallery are variously interested and disinterested observers--mostly medical students--in casual poses and dimly seen. The exception is the artist’s self-portrayal--he is studiously drawing in the front row. Dr. Gross’s son (also a surgeon) is standing in the entry tunnel.


Although Lister and Pasteur had already demonstrated the bacteriological origin of wound infections and the effectiveness of antisepsis, Dr. Gross was not a proponent of any efforts to reduce wound infections. Hence, everyone is in ordinary frock coats, and there is no effort at sterility. The influential Dr. Gross declared, "Little if any faith is placed by any enlightened or experienced surgeon on this side of the Atlantic in the so-called carbolic acid treatment of Professor Lister" (Lyons and Petrucelli, p. 554). However, this painting should be compared to Eakins’s later work, "The Agnew Clinic: Portrait of David Hayes Agnew" in which, by 1889, some efforts at antisepsis are depicted.

For composition and lighting technique, Eakins was probably influenced by the masterful The Anatomy Lesson of Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt. The concentration in the faces of the men around the figure and their attention to the task at hand, as well as the upright stance of the demonstrator are similar in both paintings. However, it is the powerful drama of the scenes--the sense of deep mystery and man’s engagement with learning and science--that underlies the connection.

Eakins was keenly interested in anatomy and studied dissection at Jefferson Medical College, as well as studying the motion photographs of Muybridge. He is now regarded as the finest American painter of the nineteenth century, and "The Gross Clinic" his best work among all of his masterpieces. The size of the painting is also monumental: 96x78 inches (243x198 cm).

Editor's note: For further information about Thomas Eakins's life and work, see the DVD, "Thomas Eakins: Scenes from Modern Life," annotated in this database.


For information about the figures in the painting, the career of Dr. Gross, and an image of the painting, see on-line resources below (click on the image to get a larger picture). For on-line information about the Eakins Gallery at Jefferson Medical College see: Jefferson Medical College sold The Gross Clinic to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in January, 2007. Conservators at the art museum completed a restoration project which went on exhibit in July 2010. Certain sections were darkened, revealing facial details of Gross's son and of Eakins's face, as well as other aspects of the composition. (New York Times Arts section, July 19, 2020).

Primary Source

Nuland, Sherwin B. Medicine: The Art of Healing. New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Assoc., 1992; Rutkow, Ira M. Surgery: An Illustrated History. New York: Mosby 1993 (frontispiece); Lyons, Albert S. and Petrucelli, R. Joseph II. Medicine: An Illustrated History. New York: Abrams, 1987; Hartt, Frederick. Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. New York: Abrams, 1976.