Imagination melded with realism
in a medical drama that played out at Mass General on January
30, 2000, as preparations began to paint the Ether Dome Painting.
MGH service chiefs turned actors,
a portrait painter turned director, and ghosts from 154 years
earlier sprang to life as the Ether Dome was restored to its original
purpose as a surgical amphitheater.
the Stage: Donning elegant period costumes, 20 MGH surgeons
and physicians and a sprinkling of others re-enacted the first
public demonstration of ether used as anesthesia in the place
where the event actually occurred. The re-enactment allowed artists
Warren and Lucia Prosperi to take dozens of photographs in preparation
for painting the 10-by-7-foot mural – a gift to the MGH
from chiefs of service and physicians throughout the hospital.
For the MGH participants – each one cast
for his resemblance to or interest in these 19th-century counterparts
– re-creating this momentous event in medical history was
time travel at its most exhilarating.
Warren Zapol, MD, chief of Anesthesia and Critical
Care, starred as William T.G. Morton, the Boston dentist who successfully
administered ether vapors to the patient, allowing MGH surgeon
John Collins Warren, MD, (played by Philip Kistler, MD, director
of the MGH Stroke Unit) to remove a vascular tumor painlessly
from Gilbert Abbott's jaw. For Zapol, keeping his muttonchop sideburns
and bushy mustache – which had required more than two hours
to apply – glued on, was a small price to pay for the opportunity
of a lifetime.
"Doing this was wonderful," said Zapol.
"They were remaking the world. As I was playing Morton, I
kept thinking, 'the guy was only 25 – just a kid –
when he did this. He had chutzpah, he was an impresario' –
that's what I was trying to convey."
from top left:
James May, MD,
chief of MGH Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery; a model
cell phone interrupts John Donohoe's interpretation of an
1846 physician; William
Austen, Jr., MD, a fellow at
Harvard Medical School, gives support to the would-be Gilbert
Abbott, played by David
Kistler, MD, director of MGH
Stroke Unit; artist Warren
Prosperi (right) gives direction
to John Herman, MD,
of Psychiatry; John
Goodson, MD (left) and
John Stoeckle, MD, of MGH Internal
Medical Associates; and William
Minichiello, MD, of MGH Psychiatry,
patiently waits for his transformation into a 19th century
A team from Emerson College's Performing Arts Department worked
painstakingly to achieve accuracy in costuming and make-up –
silk cravats were especially tailored; woolen frock coats were
carefully selected and pressed; pocket watches and monocles were
polished to a shine. The team also undertook detailed research
to fashion the patient's plastic and latex tumor, making it as
lifelike as possible.
Later in the day, Prosperi and the cast assembled
in the Ether Dome to work out the most minute of details for the
camera. When the obliging patient was placed in the maroon, velvet-covered
chair – the same one used for the original surgery –
the cast debated how to make the incision in the prosthetic tumor
and resulting "bleeding" look as realistic as possible.
"It looks too neat, too clean," called out some of the
"Shuffle around and crane your necks toward
the focal scene," said Prosperi every few minutes, as he
directed the actors to change facial expressions, gestures and
poses for each camera shot.
The Prosperis then usedthe photographs from the
re-enactment to create 20 individual "portraits" in
preparation for a half-size painting or "study."
"Study" to Finished Mural:
Using the study as a reference, the Prosperis then painted on-site
in the Ether Dome, morphing the modern-day models' features into
their 1846 counterparts.
After nearly a year of work ...
... the final artwork was unveiled
on Ether Day, 2001