A tale of two paintings: depictions of the first public demonstration of ether anesthesia

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Department of Anesthesiology

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Anesthesia; Ether, Ethyl; History, 18th Century; History, 19th Century; Humans; *Paintings


Anesthesiology | History of Science, Technology, and Medicine


Although some might argue about who is most deserving of credit for introducing anesthesia, there is no doubt that events of the 1840s marked the beginning of the conquest of pain through anesthesia. In 1882, at the urging of French portrait artist Carolus-Duran, and to fulfill training requirements as an art student in Paris, Robert Cutler Hinckley decided to create a painting of the first successful public demonstration of ether anesthesia. Hinckley's painting,The First Operation with Ether, has become one of the most popular paintings in medical history.

Before Hinckley began his work, sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward created the Ether Monument, which was erected and displayed in the Boston Public Garden in 1868. Several years after the celebration of the 150th anniversary of this historic event, the Board of Trustees at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts, at the urging of Dr. John B. Herman, commissioned Warren and Lucia Prosperi to create an accurate painting of the ether demonstration. The painting was unveiled on October 16, 2001, exactly 155 years after the original demonstration of ether anesthesia. It was presented as a gift to Massachusetts General Hospital by its physicians, nurses, and friends.

Although these paintings appear very similar, the documentation of a historic event by an artist, closer scrutiny reveals that the artists have used application of paint, control of light, varied points of view, and inclusion of detail to create works that differ markedly both in their appearance and in the emotional response they evoke.

DOI of Published Version



Anesthesiology. 2007 May;106(5):1046-50. DOI 10.1097/01.anes.0000265166.14383.0d. Link to article on publisher's site

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