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Moments in Surgical History |

19th-Century American Surgeons and Their Artist Relatives

Ira M. Rutkow, MD, MPH, DrPH
Arch Surg. 2001;136(2):241. doi:10.1001/archsurg.136.2.241.
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THERE ARE some wonderful surgical arcana associated with 19th-century American medicine. Among the more interesting tidbits is the relationship of the seminal artists John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) to their surgical ancestors. Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, the son of Fitzwilliam Sargent (1820-1889), an expatriate American surgeon. John Singer studied in France, Germany, and Italy, but received his formal art education at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and in that city's atelier of noted French portraitist Carolus-Duran (1837-1928). Sargent spent most of his adult life in England, maintaining a studio there for more than 30 years and visiting America only on short trips. As his canvases became acknowledged for their naturalism and superb technical skill, he rapidly gained fame as the most sought-after portrait painter of the day. His sitters including men and women of greatest distinction in the literary, artistic, and social life of Europe and America. Fitzwilliam Sargent was an 1843 graduate of the medical department at the University of Pennsylvania and later became a surgeon at Wills Eye Hospital. In 1855, Sargent married Mary Newbold, soon retired from his surgical practice, and went to live in Europe on account of his bride's increasingly frail health. Fitzwilliam's major claim to surgical fame was his authoring On Bandaging and Other Operations of Minor Surgery in 1848. This text is significant because of its chapter titled "Diminishing Pain During Operations." It is one of the earliest descriptions of the use of sulfuric ether and chloroform found in an American surgical textbook, coming less than 20 months after William T. Morton's (1819-1868) startling October 1846 demonstration of ether anesthesia at the Massachusetts General Hospital. The book passed through several editions and was so well received it was translated into French and Japanese.

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A pen-and-ink drawing (circa 1858) by Lucius M. Sargent (1826-1864) (courtesy of the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine). Sargent, a close cousin to Fitzwilliam Sargent, was a house surgeon to the Massachusetts General Hospital when he was named "artist to the hospital." This appointment entitles him to be considered the country's first medical illustrator and highlights the artistic skills inherent in the Sargent family. Lucius served as a surgeon in the Civil War, was shot off his horse in an engagement on Meherrin River, Virginia, and died shortly thereafter.

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