“This unholy war against oleaginous applications”, 1898


The 1898 meeting of the American Medical Association was held in Denver, Colorado in early June. One major address was on the topic of “Wet Dressings In Surgery“, delivered by Dr. Thomas Osmond Summers Jr. of St. Louis, son of the theologian and Confederate States almanac editor.

Dr. Summers reached such heights of eloquence, in his efforts to convince the audience to use oil-based surgical dressings, that it’s hard to imagine anyone disagreeing. He begins by remembering “the dramatic toss of the knife behind him of the elder Gross when completing his incision, and the autocratic delivery of the case to his assistants”.

The Gross Clinic, Thomas Eakins (1875). The woman on the left may be recoiling in anticipation of the behind-the-back knife tossing for which Dr. Gross was known.
detail of The Gross Clinic (Thomas Eakins, 1875). The woman on the left may be recoiling from the behind-the-back knife tossing for which Dr. Gross was known.

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Further excerpts:

It remained for Sir Joseph Lister to break the spell of this otium cum dignitate which was the bane of all surgical process, and teach the autocrats of the scalpel that surgery meant much more to the organism than the mere solution of continuity along anatomical lines — that this indeed was the avant courier of the real principle from which all the almost miraculous achievements of modern surgery had been evolved.

Professor Spence, almost on the edge of eternity, threw a well-poised Parthian lance at the rising genius of modern surgery.

We are glad to see this unholy war against oleaginous applications coming to an end, just as we should be also glad to see the phlebotomy pendulum point to the nadir. In surgical politics I am a middle-of-the-road man — In medio tutissimus ibis.

There are some things, however, that fashion cannot forbid, and this is one of them — like Banquo’s ghost “it will not down.” Long before science had thrown its searchlights over the dark field of biogenesis, experience had taught the steel-clad warrior the virtues of Gilead’s balm, and, from the shades of Olivet, where fell the tears of Him who came for the healing of the nations, man had learned to gather the oil for his wounded body.

The fulfilment of these conditions had been the aim of the surgical pharmacist from the time when the first coccus wriggled across the field of the microscope and gave its first exhibition to the scientific investigator of its dance of death within the organism of man.

It is about time we were looking around after labor-saving methods when we have to employ, at the simplest incisive operations, an extra attendant to wipe the sweat from our brows as the houri fans the Sultan’s heated cheek — though our attendants are not all houris, nor are our cheeks fired with the congestion of a lazy passion.

Imagine if surgeons had gone the other way, and kept the sweat-wiping attendants but actually used houris for the purpose. And lounged on divans eating grapes while performing surgery, like the sultans of yore. How different modern medicine would be.

detail of Le Harem (Fernand Cormon, c.1877). Not depicted: viewing gallery of medical students.

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