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Reenactment, Reconstruction, Recovery: Nineteenth-Century Photographs in the History of Surgery


The mid-nineteenth-century witnessed innovations in imagery and medical science, and the histories of photography and medicine intersected. The invention of the daguerreotype was announced in 1839 and methods of reproducing photographs emerged shortly thereafter. At around the same time, the operating table welcomed modifications in surgical procedures, including the introduction of ether anesthesia in the 1840s. Furthermore, diagnostic methods shifted from textual to visual, as physicians relied heavily on carefully observing their patients with what Michel Foucault later termed the "medical gaze." Photography became an essential component to document medical successes and disseminate clinical knowledge. Acknowledgements of the inherent subjectivity of photography, however, conflicted with objective understandings of these images. With a focus on American photography and medicine, the central aim of this thesis is to demonstrate that a simultaneous reading of medical photographs from a medical gaze and a highlight of subjectivity through an art historical approach does not undercut the significance of either perspective. Instead, this combined reading unveils how photography bolstered the reputation of surgery among a nineteenth-century crowd that normally tethered agony and fatality to operations, as well as shaped a history of surgery that is uniquely American.

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