December 1996

Surgical Infection in Art

Author Affiliations

From the Department of Surgery, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec.

Arch Surg. 1996;131(12):1289-1295. doi:10.1001/archsurg.1996.01430240043005

The earliest images of medicine and surgery in Western art are from the late Middle Ages. Although often attractive, at that time they were illustrative and mirrored the text on how to diagnose or treat a specific condition. These drawings in medieval manuscripts represent management of abscesses, perianal infection and fistulas, amputation, and wound dressings. With the Renaissance, art in all its forms flourished, and surgeons were represented at work draining carbuncles, infected bursae, and mastoiditis; managing ulcers, scrofula, and skin infections; and performing amputations. Specific diagnosis can be made, such as streptococcal infection in the discarded leg of the miraculous transplantation performed by Saints Cosmas and Damian and in the works of Rembrandt van Rijn and Frederic Bazille. Evocations of cytokine activity are evident in works by Albrecht Dürer, Edvard Munch, and James Tissot. The iconography of society's view of a surgeon is apparent and often not complimentary. The surgeon's art is a visual art. Astute observation leads to early diagnosis and better results in surgical infection and the septic state. Learning to see what we look at enhances our appreciation of the world around us but, quite specifically, makes us better clinicians. Arch Surg. 1996;131:1289-1295