Curator Louise Lippincott discusses Jules Adler's painting, "Transfusion of a Goat's Blood," a 51-inch tall and 77-inch wide oil on canvas, hanging at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland. A French physician, Simon Bernheim, commissioned this painting of himself transfusing blood from a goat into a young woman. Click on the image above to the introductory page.
The painting hanging at The Carnegie Museum of Art looks like a scene from a Grade B horror movie.
Lying supine on a cot is an ashen-faced young woman. A man is inserting a needle into her arm, and the tubing attached to it is filled with blood from a goat, which is muzzled and tied down on a table behind the woman.
Gazing impassively down at the woman is the man who commissioned the painting in 1892, Parisian doctor Samuel Bernheim.
As macabre as it is, the painting apparently shows a real-life moment, because in the same year, Bernheim published a report in a French medical journal titled, "Transfusion de sang de chevre et tuberculose pulmonaire" -- transfusion of a goat's blood and pulmonary tuberculosis.
The large canvas, painted by French naturalist Jules Adler, is part of the "Fierce Friends" exhibit at the Carnegie, a show exploring the relationship between artists and animals that runs through Aug. 27.
By today's standards, the scene is bizarre and even disgusting, especially when visitors read the curators' text, which explains that Bernheim believed the goat's blood might cure the patient because women were closer to animals physiologically than men were.
At the time, though, the 37-year-old Bernheim's attempted cure was no stranger than many others that were being tried on tuberculosis, a wasting lung disease that was then the industrial's world's leading killer.
The disease killed about 7 million people a year in that era, and is estimated to have killed 1 billion people between 1700 and 1900.
German scientist Robert Koch had discovered the bacterium that causes tuberculosis in 1882, for which he later won the Nobel Prize.
But David Barnes, a science historian at the University of Pennsylvania and author of a book on the history of tuberculosis in 19th-century France, said that Koch's discovery wouldn't lead to effective treatments for several more decades.
That left doctors grasping at straws.
Besides Bernheim's goat transfusion, other remedies attempted in those years included cod liver oil, lichen in teas and jams, antimony, tannic acid, creosote, arsenic, static electricity and breathing formaldehyde.
Bernheim apparently had high hopes for his procedure, because he offered the 27-year-old Adler 1,200 francs for the commission and promised him a 300-franc bonus if the painting was accepted at the Paris Salon, according to exhibit curators Louise Lippincott of the Carnegie and Andreas Bluhm of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, Germany.
"The Salon jury accepted the painting, but it is doubtful if it found Bernheim the recognition he so desired," the curators wrote. "The Paris Ecole de Medecine, somewhat embarrassed by this chapter in its otherwise glorious past, put the painting in the stairway leading to its museum."
It is somewhat surprising that anyone would be attempting an animal-to-human blood transfusion as late as 1890, said Douglas Starr, author of the 1998 book "Blood: an Epic History of Medicine and Commerce."
There had been a flurry of transfusions from animals to humans in the late 1600s, driven by a rivalry between British and French physicians, he said. While some of the first results seemed promising, eventually so many people died from getting animal blood that the procedure was banned throughout most of Europe, and transfusions of any kind wouldn't be tried again for another 150 years.
In the 1800s, doctors began experimenting with human-to-human blood transfusions, connecting the tubing from one person to the other, because they had not yet figured out how to keep blood from clotting after it left the body.
By the time of Jules Adler's painting, most doctors had some evidence that animal and human blood were not compatible.
Yet around the same time, Barnes said, doctors in Germany were starting to use animal serum to treat children who had diphtheria, another deadly disease, and that may have encouraged doctors like Bernheim to believe that animal fluids could cure human ailments.
It would take until 1901 for Austrian scientist Karl Landsteiner to discover that human beings themselves had four blood types, which he named A, B, AB and O, and that those types had to be matched carefully to make human blood transfusions safe.
Barnes said little else is known about Bernheim, except that he was a well-respected physician who published several articles on tuberculosis treatments. He also founded a charity for tuberculosis patients and their children to send them to the seaside and other open areas, part of the sanatorium movement that was then in vogue.
In a similar way, not much is known about Jules Adler's life, said art historian Gabe Weisberg of the University of Minnesota.
"He's an artist who deserves much more attention," Weisberg said, but because Adler painted in a traditional style and later concentrated on themes of urban poverty, he never became popular, despite continuing to work into the 1940s.
Today, blood donations and transfusions are an accepted way of life, especially now that the crisis over HIV and hepatitis infections of the blood supply has largely passed.
But this massive blood banking system would not have been possible without one other critical invention.
In 1915, New York doctor Richard Lewisohn announced that he had found a way to keep blood from coagulating after it left the body, by mixing in a small amount of sodium citrate -- a technique that is still used today and allows red blood cells to be stored for more than a month.
Bertram Bernheim, an American doctor who does not seem to be related to Samuel Bernheim, remembered how miraculous Lewisohn's discovery seemed.
"It took me seven hours to do my first transfusion," he wrote in a 1942 memoir. "I wore out utterly one donor and all but killed the second ... Yet here comes a man who makes it all look silly with his few drops of clear, watery looking solution that takes all the fight out of blood ...
"And what did he do? Nothing but make transfusion available to every sick person in the world, high and low, rich or poor, black or white, man, woman or child."A portion of Jules Adler's painting, "Transfusion of a Goat's Blood," the blood transfusion from a goat into a young woman.
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Mark Roth can be reached at email@example.com or at 412-263-1130.