Heroes of modern surgery: Eakins’ Dr. Gross and Dr. Agnew

Two portraits reveal the huge steps made by medicine in the 19th century

Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875, oil on canvas, 243.8 x 198.1 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art) and Thomas Eakins, The Agnew Clinic, 1889, oil on canvas, 214 cm × 300 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

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Key points

  • The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 celebrated a century of American independence with a world’s fair that showcased American progress. Thomas Eakins painted The Gross Clinic to demonstrate advances in surgical techniques taking place in Philadelphia. Samuel Gross was then one of the nation’s most famous surgeons. The depiction was considered too graphic to be included in the art exhibition, however, and was instead included in a medical display.
  • Dr. Gross and Jefferson Medical College represented a shift in surgical capabilities at a moment of rapid improvements in the scientific understanding of medicine and disease. Eakins depicts some of these advancements in the use of anesthesia and the type of surgery shown, which built on new understandings of bone regeneration. Notably, this painting reflects early skepticism about germ theory in the lack of a sterile environment for the surgery.
  • The Agnew Clinic, painted fourteen years later, reflects a new round of innovation, as the operating theater is flooded in artificial light, the doctors are dressed in white gowns and use sterilized tools, and a professional female nurse is included.
  • Thomas Eakins was a Realist painter, carefully depicting the material facts of medical care in the nineteenth century (and including his own self-portrait in each painting). At the same time, he used composition and light to portray these surgeons as modern heroes.

Go deeper

See The Gross Clinic at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Learn more about The Gross Clinic

See a preliminary sketch of The Gross Clinic

Read about Dr. David Agnew

Learn more about Mary V. Clymer

Read about the Listerian Revolution, the Gross Clinic, and the Agnew Clinic

Learn more about the history of surgery


More to think about

As the video shows, Eakins’s heroic representation of Dr. Gross and Dr. Agnew helped to underscore the significance of their scientific achievement. How do we commemorate important technological advances, and the individuals responsible for them, today?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.