Tuesday, October 29, 2013

19th C. Breast Cancer Lithograph Makes Surgery Look Beautiful

by Stephen J. Gertz

A copy of the first edition of the most complete anatomical atlas and arguably the most beautiful of the nineteenth century, Jean Baptiste Marc Bourgery's Traité complet de l’anatomie de l’homme, comprenant la médecine opératoire (1831-1854), is being offered by Christie's-Paris in its Importants Livres  Ancienes, Livres d'Artistes, et Manuscrits sale November 6, 2013.

Amongst the 726 beautifully designed lithographed plates within its sixteen books in eight folio volumes is Fonctionnant sur une tumeur cancéreuse (Operating on a Cancerous Tumor), which depicts a neat and bloodless breast ablation upon a beautiful woman in calm repose as two sets of hands perform the surgery as if the horror was Photoshopped out leaving only the sheen of precision and 19th century state-of-the-art medicine.

How 'bout those clean, well-manicured, bare hands so gracefully intruding into the patient's flesh as if dancing a finger ballet? The two inset images show the successful result of the surgeons' efforts, and the whole presents a procedure sterile of reality if not of pathogens. The blood-curdling screams have been excised for your comfort; surgical anesthesia was in its infancy and ether and chloroform were not yet standard. This is an artistic exercise in medical aesthetics.

Bourgery studied medicine in Paris with RenĂ© Laennec, inventor of the stethoscope, and Guillaume Dupuytren, the French anatomist and military surgeon who won fame treating Napoleon's hemorrhoids as the imperial proctologist, before Bourgery continued his work his work at Romilly. 

Published over a period of twenty-three years, this atlas was the result of titanic work by Bourgery, who died before the last volume's publication. This huge artistic work was supervised by Nicholas-Henri Jacob (1782-1871), student of Jacques-Louis David

"Without issue one of the most beautifully illustrated anatomical and surgical treatises ever published in any language" (Heirs of Hippocrates).

We post this today to remind all that breast cancer needs to be early detected and treated. Despite Bourgery's neat and tidy depiction scrubbed of life and death, breast cancer surgery is not pretty. National Breast Cancer Awareness Month ends tomorrow.

BOURGERY, Jean Baptiste Marc (1797-1849). Traité complet de l’anatomie de l’homme, comprenant la médecine opératoire. Paris: C.-A. Delaunay, 1831-1854. First edition. Sixteen tomes in eight folio volumes (425 x 310 mm). Eight lithographed title pages, 724 plates (of 726, lacks vol. V plate 5 and vol. VII plate 36). Lacks the frontispiece. Some foxing, a few tears. Contemporary half black morocco, smooth spine.

Heirs of Hippocrates 1569. Waller 1342. Wellcome II, p. 214.

Image courtesy of Christie's, with our thanks.

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