Not for the faint-hearted: Gruesome medical illustrations from the 19th-century (NSFW)

Surgery to correct strabismus, a misalignment of the eyes.
The artist Francis Bacon spent many hours poring over illustrated medical books looking at surgical procedures on mouth and tongue cancer, hare-lip correction, and tracheotomies. He declared these image beautiful, in particular the way in which the artist had used color to represent a tongue or a mouth. It was something he tried to recreate in his own paintings. Bacon was a voracious reader. After his death, more than 1,000 of his books were donated to Dublin’s Trinity College History of Art Department and the City Gallery, the Hugh Lane. Among this collection are works by Beckett, Nietzsche, T. S. Eliot, De Beauvoir, Elizabeth David cookery books, and a well-used set of medical textbooks, some illustrated by Frank Netter, others containing work by Joseph Pancoast (1805-82).

Pancoast was an American surgeon who pioneered many techniques in surgery and in particular plastic surgery. He also wrote the highly influential book A Treatise on Operative Surgery, first published in 1844, which compiled various surgical procedures or “processes” that exhibited the “state of surgical science in is present advanced condition.” The book contained some 80 color-plates and 486 illustrations, and was further enlarged in 1846.

Illustrations from another medical book that caught Bacon’s interest was Précis iconographique de médecine opératoire et d’anatomie chirurgicale by Claude Bernard (1813-1878), a French physiologist, who has been described as “one of the greatest of all men of science.” Bernard was the first to use “blind experiments” by which information is kept from the participants to eliminate any possible bias. He also believed scientists must endeavor to disprove their own theories as scientists can “solidly settle” their ideas “only by trying to destroy [their] own conclusions by counter-experiments.”

Like Bacon, I’ve had a long fascination with old medical textbooks and their illustrations as I find the artists’ depictions of surgery and disease beautifully capture the essential frailty of the human condition. However, some readers may find a few of the following illustrations potentially disturbing. You have been warned.

The removal of cataracts.
Surgery for correcting a harelip.
Ear surgery.
Far more disturbing surgical procedures, after the jump….

Posted by Paul Gallagher
09:22 am
Beautiful portraiture of the very first brain surgery patients
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Dubbed the “father of modern neurosurgery,” Dr. Harvey Cushing had a brilliant medical career. In 1901 he discovered what was later called the Cushing reflex—basically, what happens to your body when the brain is squeezed (That sounds way less science-y than it actually is, I swear). From there he continued to pioneer new ways of diagnosing brain tumors through X-rays, which produced new surgical techniques that drastically improved patients’ chances at survival from previously deadly conditions. Cushing also left a collection of about 500 preserved brains and nearly 10,000 patient photographs for posterity. In 2010—after sitting in a Yale dorm basement for more than 30 years—the brains were transferred to a museum, but it’s only recently that the pictures have been made available to the public.

The full series, titled “Cushing Tumor Registry,” covers Cushing’s patients from 1900 to 1933, and honestly if you had told me these were taken by Richard Avedon or Irving Penn, I wouldn’t have questioned it. The saturated, intense portraiture is stunning, whether focused on a pretty face or a brutal scar. Despite the medical nature of the photography, nothing in this cross-section elicits a shudder. Even the photo of the disembodied brain just looks like a still life.


More after the jump…

Posted by Amber Frost
08:52 am