Reevaluating the iconography of the first ether surgeries.
Number tags added for the following attributions: 1.) George Parkman 2.) Solomon David Townsend 3.) William Augustus Briggs–unverified 4.) Augustus Addison Gould 5.) William T. G. Morton ; 6.) Patient 7.) Samuel Parkman 8.) Jonathon Mason Warren 9.) Henry Jacob Bigelow 10.) Daniel Denison Slade 11.) Ward attendent.
Sulphuric ether entered the surgical armamentarium on October 16, 1846, the day Dr. John Collins Warren risked his reputation on an experimental substance for blunting the pain of his scalpel while excising the facial tumor of his patient, Edward Gilbert Abbott (1825-1855). The providential Abbott operation has inspired many artists, writers, and photohistorians, but their interpretations of Ether Dome Daguerreotype No. 1, the Hawes daguerreotype claimed to represent the operation, have accreted around a good deal of guesswork. It is generally conceded that Abbott is not the patient in the photograph, but the prevailing view that he is an actor posing as Abbott for a staged "Reenactment daguerreotype" commemorative is also doubtful. There is scant evidence that verifies the identities of the doctors or their motivations in posing for EDD No. 1, and the more the re-enactment construct is studied, the more inconsistencies in the details that emerge. Photographic records of the first ether operations were eventually made, this is known, and Hawes is established as the photographer. Dr. Warren's place in history was secured when, according to the legend, he turned to the spectators and declared, "Gentlemen, this is no humbug," but was this one of the seeds of fiction planted that day? And is it possible the first photograph of etherisation represents an actual surgery in which Dr. Warren is neither playing the lead role, nor even among the subjects who are posing for the camera?
I propose that the first photograph of etherisation captures not a reenactment but rather an enactment, one of the actual ether surgeries prosecuted at Massachusetts General Hospital within the first months following the Abbott operation. Drawing from my experience as a visual artist, this will be a physiognomic study of the confusion that surrounds the identities and mischaracterizations of Ether Dome Daguerreotype No. 1 as a staged reenactment, a fictionalized tableau vivant. The identities of the principals will be examined, including that of the etherized patient, and correctives offered. I also draw upon the valuable guidance I have received through my correspondence with scholars who are intimate with the Ether Dome daguerreotypes and, as this is a work in progress, guidance I hope to acquire in the future.
The "Reenactment" scenario »»
Henry Bryan Hall's engraving »»
Arthur Ignatius Keller's painting »»
Identities of the doctors:
Consolidated references »»
Author/artist: Mark Rowley. The text and pictorial contents of this manuscript are my own creation, except where indicated. Revised and reformatted for the web, pending the print edition. Illustrations of Ether Dome Daguerreotypes No. 1-5 are adapted from Wikimedia Commons. Copyright © 2022.