Theodor Billroth Operating (Billroth im Hörsaal)

Seligmann, Adelbert

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Painting

Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey
  • Date of entry: Sep-09-1998
  • Last revised: Jun-06-2016


Theodor Billroth, one of the most innovative and outstanding surgeons and educators of late 19th century European medicine, is depicted in this painting at the height of fame when he was about 60 years old. Billroth, in full white beard, stands in the center of the canvas, looking away from the patient--an assistant is handing him a surgical instrument. His visage is regal, his bearing composed.Seven white-coated assistants surround the patient, who lays supine with his head elevated. The patient's head is shaved, and according to the artist's notes, the operation is a neurotomy for trigeminal neuralgia--a painful condition of the face. The patient is receiving general anesthesia by open drop method. Billroth favored a mixture of alcohol, chloroform, and ether, anticipating a modern trend to administer multiple agents in anesthesia. Billroth is also using Lister's methods of sterilization and antisepsis. Note that rubber gloves were not yet used in surgery at this time.Light from a large window to the surgeon's right bathes the operating theater with brightness. A full gallery of onlookers includes the artist on the right side of the first row, and the Duke of Bavaria, seated at the opposite end, who came to the operations and lectures for entertainment. Billroth was a celebrated teacher, and thousands came to the Allgemeines Krankenhaus, the General Hospital of the University of Vienna, to observe and study his techniques.


There are many similarities between this painting and Eakins's The Gross Clinic (see this database), painted years before. The stance and commanding presence of the attending surgeons (and the light on their foreheads), as well as the artists' self-portraits on the first row of the galleries, are similar. However, the tone of the paintings are vastly different--Eakins's painting is dark and dramatic, whereas Seligmann's is well-lit and documentary. This painting is of great historical significance, as it accurately depicts an operation in the late nineteenth century. Seligmann also documents the leadership of a renowned surgeon and educator, Billroth, whose surgical techniques are still used over a century later. Editor's note: Professor Karel B. Absolon, a retired surgeon, physiologist, and medical historian has informed me that he helped to track the original painting down in 1963 when he was a visiting professor in Vienna. The picture was found languishing in a closet at the Surgical Clinic II. After restoration it was hung in the department library. Dr. Absolon is author of The Belle Epoch of Surgery, which has a reproduction of the picture (Kabel Publishers, 11225 Huntover Drive, Rockville, MD 20852).


Dates of painting are listed variously as 1880, 1889, and 1890.

Primary Source

Surgical Clinic II, Vienna, Austria