A surgery in Portland was a surprisingly messy affair more than a century ago.
[To view a higher-resolution photo, click on the image.]
Photograph courtesy of Maine Medical Center Archives
These days institutional photographers spend hours polishing and positioning even the smallest details in order to best capture their scenes, but that was hardly the case around 1895 when an anonymous cameraman snapped this remarkable image of a surgery at Maine General Hospital in Portland. Instead, the four nurses shown here have done only a rudimentary cleaning of the operating room’s hardwood floor, leaving piles of towels and buckets of soapy water below the sinks, at upper left, and dark stains surrounding the operating table — presumably water, though some may be leftover blood stains from previous surgeries. For although the amphitheater shown here was just ten years old, attending surgeon George H. Cummings, at the left side of the table, and adjunct surgeon Henry H. Block, on the right, were averaging two surgeries a day. They made use of the most modern equipment available: the bottle stand holding four hinged irrigators, at lower right, would have kept an incision clear during surgery; the arm immersion bowls, at upper left and right behind the nurses, would have allowed the surgeons to sterilize their conspicuously bare hands and forearms; removable sink basins, at upper left, could be filled with sterilized water from the gauze-covered taps; and the triangular ether mask, barely visible on the patient’s chest, would have ensured he endured no pain. Finally, the wooden-handled scalpel that Dr. Cummings clutches in his right hand, as well as the trays holding several other devices at lower left, would have served as appropriate instruments for the ankle excision or even, perhaps, amputation that was about to take place, judging by the exposed foot at center.
Despite such amenities, the surgeons at Maine General — it would become Maine Medical Center in 1951 — relied on a variety of natural aids in their work. Procedures were usually scheduled at mid-day, for instance, because light was supplied chiefly through twenty-foot-tall windows on each side of the room, as well as through a skylight situated directly overhead. (In 1892 a dynamo was installed to power the overhead bulb, at upper right, that replaced the kerosene lamps in the brackets on the wall at rear, but in this scene the light has been tied off to the side so as to not block either the sunlight or the photographer’s view.) A fireplace, just out of sight at far left, put out enough heat to complement radiators. Interestingly, it’s the person taking this photograph that has drawn the attention of one of the two doctors observing from the tiered seating at left. Yet for the physician beside him — possibly Dr. Stephen Weeks, a surgeon interested in femoral artery aneurysms, perhaps the malady being treated here — the drama unfolding in front of him was more interesting than the cameraman recording the scene.
- By: Joshua F. Moore