Thomas Jefferson University

Reproduction of Portriat of Professor Forbes


By 1905 Thomas Eakins's personal reputation as a maverick was still intact, but his portraits were receiving more recognition and the artist had won several prizes and awards. Jefferson Medical College chose Eakins for a commission to paint the portrait of Professor William Smith Forbes, an anatomist, surgeon, teacher, and medical activist.

Forbes had organized a private anatomy school before the Civil War, and was appointed demonstrator of anatomy at Jefferson in 1879 and then chair of anatomy in 1886. The following year he was put in charge of conducting the general surgical clinic. The professor's geniality endeared him to his students, but he won their respect and gratitude and that of the entire medical community for his pioneering efforts in securing legislation known as the Anatomy Act.


This act of 1867 and its amendment of 1883 promoted medical education "by the distribution and use of unclaimed human bodies for scientific purposes through a board created for that purpose and to prevent unauthorized uses and traffic in human bodies." The Pennsylvania law stopped the practice of body snatching and served as a model for other states which adopted similar legislation.

Like Eakins who risked his career and reputation for principles regarding the importance of anatomy in art education, Forbes, too, suffered public humiliation in achieving his goal of legalizing anatomical dissection in medical education. In 1882 he was arrested for complicity in the crime of grave robbing. Although he was subsequently acquitted and eminent colleagues including Samuel D. Gross rallied to his cause and helped pay his legal expenses, sensational press accounts and a notorious trial took their toll on his health. The triumph of the legislation came at great personal cost.


Eakins portrayed Forbes lecturing to students in the clinical amphitheater of Jefferson's first hospital which had been erected in 1877. The seventy-four-year-old physician was still the professor of anatomy. Three significant objects on the table include a book entitled Opera Harveii , the collected works of William Harvey, the seventeenth-century English anatomist admired by Forbes; a parchment document labeled "The Anatomy Act" hanging over the edge of the venerable operating table; and a skull symbolizing Forbes's renown as a teacher of anatomy, and perhaps also serving as a memento mori for Forbes's advancing age. A Latin inscription on the wall in front of the attentive students credits Forbes for implementing the Anatomy Act.

At first glance the anatomist is an imposing figure, tall and stocky, occupying center stage. But then one notices signs of frailty and vulnerability. Forbes's posture is stooped and he seems unsteady on his feet, leaning on the operating table for support. Though fashionably dressed in a black frock coat, his trousers are rumpled and baggy, pooling around his ankles. His graying hair and whiskers are thin and wispy, and the skin on his neck is slack and wrinkled. Deep lines are etched onto his face and dark circles underlie his eyes.

Only Forbes's expressive hands retain their vigor. His still-strong hands interact with the objects and allude to his physically demanding career. The index finger of his right hand points to the proclamation and the fingertips of his left hand rest on the parchment.

Here time and motion have slowed down and the mood is more reflective. Forbes stands alone in the foreground gazing into the distance. The architectural space is shallow, and few tiers of students are visible. The somber, almost monochromatic tan and brown tones allude to the physician's stately dignity and meditative mood. There is an all-pervasive stillness to the room. A golden glow emanating from the skylight above highlights the professor's head and hand, shirt collar, and gold commemorative pocket watch. The metaphorical means of Eakins's empathetic portrayal increase the poignancy of the moment. One senses that William S. Forbes is an aging physician reflecting on the past, hopefully concluding that the achievements outweighed the ordeals.

In the twilight of his career Forbes was doubly honored for his contributions at a unique ceremony. In 1905 "junior alumni" and students from Jefferson classes of 1905-08 presented the Eakins portrait at the eightieth annual commencement. Then in a rare collaborative gesture the University of Pennsylvania Medical Alumni Association presented alumnus Forbes (he had degrees from both medical schools) with an inscribed silver loving cup as a symbol of their esteem.