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“The Emperor of American Surgery”

A star of Jefferson Medical College (now part of Thomas Jefferson University), Samuel D. Gross was one of the school’s first graduates and among its greatest professors. Born on a farm near Easton, Pennsylvania, he received his medical degree in 1828 with the third graduating class of the new college, chartered in 1824. His expertise as an anatomist led to teaching appointments in Cincinnati and Louisville until 1856, when his alma mater invited him to take the post of professor of surgery at Jefferson. By 1875, when Thomas Eakins painted him surrounded by his "clinic" of other doctors, he was revered as a teacher, admired as a surgeon (who claimed never to have lost a patient on the operating table), and respected as a founder and member of many local, national, and international medical societies.

He was revered as a teacher, admired as a surgeon...and respected as a founder and member of many medical societies.

Gross—referred to in his day as “The Emperor of American Surgery”—innovated many surgical techniques and instruments, and he was also a prolific and influential author. A System of Surgery (1859), among his important textbooks, was translated into many languages. His pocket-sized Manual of Military Surgery (1861) was carried on the battlefield on both sides of the Civil War.

Eakins depicts Gross teaching in a skylit, octagonal amphitheater in the Ely Building (no longer extant) on Tenth and Sansom Streets in Philadelphia. In 1877 Gross moved his clinic to a lecture hall nearby in the newly built Jefferson Medical College Hospital, which—in its modern facility today—remains the center of three related colleges united since 1969 as Thomas Jefferson University.

The operation shown in the painting demonstrates one of Gross’s areas of special expertise: the removal of dead tissue from the thighbone of a patient suffering from osteomyelitis. His procedure demonstrates the recent revolution in treatment for this disease, opened by new understanding of anatomy and the body’s ability to heal itself. Gross inspired his students—including Eakins, who attended his lectures—with his vision of the dramatic progress in American medicine in the nineteenth century, pioneered by the research and innovation of Philadelphia’s scientific community.

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