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Online Exhibit:
Creating the
Ether Dome Painting

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.

Setting 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."

Clockwise 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 Silverman; Philip 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 physician.

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 doctors.

"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."

From "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