The "Reenactment" scenario.




On October 16, 1846, Edward Gilbert Abbott arrived at the operating theater of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) for a ligation and excision of a long-standing angioma that infiltrated below the jaw-line of his neck. Dr. Warren was lifting his scalpel to begin the procedure when William T. G. Morton finally arrived, carrying his glass globe vaporizer charged with a secret concoction of aromatic oils disguising the active ingredient, sulphuric ether. Morton was delayed by a problem with the valve of his vaporizer, but now the experiment could proceed. Josiah Johnson Hawes (1808-1901), a photographer representing the firm Southworth & Hawes, had arrived earlier to set up his equipment and he stood ready to record the momentous event. But, once the ether was administered and Dr. Warren's scalpel began scoring a thin red line across Abbott's face, the sight of blood sickened the photographer and he was unable to complete his task. And so another photographic session had to be scheduled to capture a reenactment of the Abbott operation. The surgical team was called back to the "Dome," they assembled around an actor standing in for the real Abbott, and Hawes took the redeeming photo, forever rubricated in medical histories as the "Reenactment daguerreotype."

Or so the legend goes.

When they were created, the Ether Dome daguerreotypes were novel objects that Massachusetts General Hospital would have been unprepared to archive: medical unicums opening a new space between specimen and paper document. With the passage of time, hospital records that might have been attached to them were lost, identities forgotten, and they acquired an aura of unfamiliarity that is enticing to historians. One of the sources of mischaracterization that followed the Abbott operation can be traced to a statement by Dr. John Collins Warren's that it be "placed in the class of cases of imperfect etherization," given that his patient was semiconscious and agitated during the five minute procedure.(10 »»)  Proof of the safety and effectiveness of sulphuric ether was established by a capital operation that took place on November 7, 1846, when Hayward amputated the diseased leg of 19-yr-old Alice Mohan under perfect etherisation. His was the third historic ether operation at MGH, the first one after the Jackson patent claim suspension, and it was considerably more dramatic than the Abbott surgery. From my readings I suspect that many historical accounts of the first ether trials often confused or blended details of the Abbott and Mohan surgeries. Further confusion can be blamed on the fact that EDD No. 1, the so called "Reenactment daguerreotype," was buried in the archives of Mass. General Hospital and wasn't published until 1997, long after the numerous appearances in print of EDD Nos. 2-4 with their erroneous captions.(11)

One of the first mischaracterisations of an Ether Dome daguerreotype as a "reenactment" was perpetrated by photo-historian Beaumont Newhall to describe EDD No. 4, reproduced in his monograph on American daguerreotypes.(12)  The literature on the Ether Dome daguerreotypes is fraught with such inaccuracies and mistaken identities. In a well-researched investigation of the Ether Dome daguerreotypes, Dr. Rajesh Parsotam Haridas provided a good number of insightful clarifications of the bibliographic record, succeeding in tracking down "37 English language publications (books, journals, newsletters, and magazines) containing a total of 57 reproductions of the Ether Dome daguerreotypes."(13)  Dr. Haridas was able to tabulate description errors made by twenty-four of these publications, wherein Ether Dome Daguerreotypes Nos. 2-4 were often mistakenly captioned either as "the first surgery under ether," or its "reenactment." He may have also succeeded in locating the first published account of the Hawes fainting spell anecdote, as it was related by Dr. Albert Novatus Blodgett (1848–1923), who was introduced by Warren Jr. at the Ether Day observance at MGH in 1906.(14 »»)  Blodgett exhibited several of the Hawes daguerreotypes that day and was able to secure for the occasion Dr. Warren's calling card and the surgical instruments he supposedly used for the Abbott operation. Warren gave these mementos to Hawes in appreciation for his professionalism and perhaps as tacit compensation for the discomfort of shooting clinical photographs under very difficult circumstances. Dr. Blodgett lived at 51 Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, within walking distance of Mass. General Hospital as well as the Southworth & Hawes studio on Tremont-row. He was eminent in his field, contributed many analytic papers, and was the first to administer continuous oxygen as a treatment in pneumonia (1890), but he was also a prolific historian, remembered for his biography of Gui Patin (1912).

Today the leading proponents of the reenactment scenario are Bates Lowry and Isabel Barrett Lowry, who astutely conflated the nearly "simultaneous developments" of ether anesthesia and photography with their tribute to the artistry of the Ether Dome daguerreotypes, published as a chapter in the catalogue raisonné of Southworth & Hawes.(15)  Remarking on the diachronicity of EDD Nos. 3-4, Lowry & Lowry pointed out the significance when, "For the first time in the history of photography an act carried out over a space of time was recorded by the camera."(16)  This statement should be qualified as the possibly the first medical sequence, given the insane amount of photographic experimentation that was going on at the time. It is said that Southworth & Hawes captured the first serial images of a solar eclipse, taken in the spring of 1846, but even that claim may prove false some day.

With no archival documentation existing with which to support the reenactment or any other thesis of Ether Dome Daguerreotype No. 1, Lowry & Lowry lean into an aesthetic approach that hews closely to the notion of a performance piece, and their attributions accord with this scenario (discussed individually below). It is a sweeping argument that favors the artistry of a master photographer and Lowry & Lowry are full-throated in their claim that, among other preparations prior to the photo sessions, Southworth & Hawes "spent considerable time studying and sketching the conditions" within the surgical arena, testing the lighting, taking "trial daguerreotypes" of the space, and "arranging stand-ins," all with the orthographic control of an old master painting.(17)  They embellished their argument by associating Hawes's compositions with a full-scale copy of Rembrandt's painting, "The anatomy lesson of Dr. Tulp," which greeted Dr. Warren's students coming to his home for private instruction. It is a facile trope, one I've seen used often by authors in need of an imagistic reference to describe a picture of physicians gathered around a medical subject, but surely the allusion seems especially appropriate in this instance, with the visages of luminous intelligence emerging from the depths of chiaroscuro. Whether by accident or by design, EDD No. 1 is a superb composition, a vivid testament to Hawes's skills as a trained artist and photographer, and a masterpiece in the history of photography. Where, though, does the reenactment daguerreotype land on the subjectivity scale of index and icon – below or above Galton's composites?


10.) Warren, JC (1848), "Etherization: With Surgical Remarks." Boston: William D. Ticknor; p. 6.

11.) Norris, R (1997), "In praise of scratched daguerreotypes. Portraits of the Whitridge brothers." In: The Daguerreian Annual. Pittsburgh: The Daguerreian Society ; p. 32–46. EDD No. 1 is Fig. 6 on p. 37, captioned: "Attributed to Southworth and Hawes. Reenactment of the first operation under ether." Norris doesn't cite her source for the caption, but it was probably a transcription from the Fogg Museum where the daguerreotype is archived.

12.) Newhall, B (1961), "The Daguerreotype in America." New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce; plate 56. Newhall was misled by Richard B. Holman (1903–1984), the son of Louis A. Holman (1866–1939), owner of the eponymous Boston print shop that handled the Hawes estate.

13.) Haridas, RP (2010), "Photographs of early ether anesthesia in Boston. The daguerreotypes of Albert Southworth and Josiah Hawes." In: Anesthesiology. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; vol. 113, p. 13-26.

14.) Anonymous (1906), "Ether day at the Massachusetts General Hospital." In: The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. Boston: Cupples, Upham & Company ; vol. 155, no. 16, p. 450.

15.) Lowry, B & Lowry, I (2005), "Simultaneous developments: documentary photography and painless surgery." In: Young America: the daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes. New York: George Eastman House & International Center of Photography (Romer & Wallis, ed.); p. 75-88.

16.) Ibid; p. 83.

17.) Ibid; p. 78.



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