Hospital of the homogenized

World War I doctor Lorenz Böhler's body-as-machine perspective

When it comes to curing the body, we rarely question the required practices. Focusing on Austrian surgeon Lorenz Böhler, who ran a field hospital during World War I, Thomas Schlich addressed this issue in a lecture at McGill’s department of Art History and Communications last Thursday as part of a speaker series that invites professors and academics to present research before faculty, students, and community members.

Schlich, a McGill professor and Canada Research Chair in the history of medicine, discussed the visual and medical standardization that Böhler strived for in his practice and in the photographs produced to record his experimentation. Aiming to prove that standardized treatment would reduce surgical error, Böhler saw the de-individualization of patients as necessary for efficiency, an attitude stemming from the greater context of industrialization at the time both in society and in the war.

Schlich characterized Böhler’s aim as the rationalization of fracture treatment and care. The system Böhler devised was in many ways centred on the idea of the machine: a coupling of machine and body in the treatment itself, a machine-like system of care, “little healing factories” that aimed to treat as many patients as possible with the same fracture, using the same methods and gaining the same results. In a paper on this topic, Schlich describes Böhler as trying “to create islands of order and rationality within what he saw as the general turmoil of war.” He proposed the idea of industrial care to the Austrian military, but the consulted surgeons dismissed it, choosing to follow a more individualized approach.

In light of the presentation’s host department, Schlich focused on Böhler’s photographs, meant to act as visual data in proving the effectiveness of his ideas. They show men, for the most part completely naked, posed from different angles in front of black or generic backgrounds. Some of these photographs are group portraits, showing upwards of a dozen men all facing the same way and moving the same limb in a synchronized act of choreography. The photographs are often unsettling and bizarre, and occasionally border on the theatrical. As Schlich pointed out, Böhler’s images are the origin of the term “ballet of the crutches,” which he followed by juxtaposing a photograph of several men with a single leg raised to one of the Tiller Girls, a Rockettes predecessor.

While Böhler claimed objectivity, using as few words as possible to supplement his visuals, he strove to create “conditions to make his images effective.” Some are double-exposed to show the range of a joint’s movement, others have X-ray outlines drawn on top of the limb in question, while in others men are juxtaposed with full-size anatomical drawings. Though the images have an air of official documentation, Böhler blocked out unimportant details and took aesthetic liberties in order to prove that his system was efficient and effective.

Ultimately, these manipulations are reflective not only of art practices at the time, but of the bodily interventions required by medicine. In an email correspondence with The Daily, Schlich explained the artistic phenomenon of the “intact and virile” male form, seen in World War I memorials, as indicative of a historical preference toward the idealized body. Böhler’s patients deviate from this model, and are inherently modern in their unabashed nakedness and unselfconscious imperfection, presented in such a homogenous manner that they almost seem mass produced. Böhler’s photographs now stand in the canon of medical photography, and though not produced to be read artistically, they foreshadow a more modern conception of the imperfect body, in sickness and in health.

Schlich’s research comes at an important time for the field of art history. Mary Hunter, a professor in the department of Art History and Communications whose research explores art and medical iconography, notes that students are increasingly “becoming interested in the intersections between art and medicine, particularly medical uses of photography.” Though the two might seem mutually exclusive, Schlich’s lecture was an important reminder of how beneficial this sort of interdisciplinary research can be for the fields implicated. Rather than categorizing Böhler’s photographs as either art or medicine, it is the intersection between the two that creates space for discourse, shedding light on medical history and how the documentation of historical trends has affected current norms.