It's 1902. Two young girls are conjoined near the waist. A daring doctor decides to separate them and film it.
Yup, this is a story line in Season 2 of the Knick (y'all know I love it, check out my post about Season 1 here.) If you know anything about the making of the show, it's that they do a really good job of being historically-medically accurate, thanks to their consultants at the Burns Archive. It's a story line, but it's based on a real operation done by Dr. Eugene-Louis Doyen in France on two conjoined twins named Radica and Doodica.
These extreme cases - where death feels imminent anyway - these are the cases where doctors try something radical. And trying to separate the girls was radical. Three previous attempts had been made to separate conjoined twins. All had failed.
In 1903, the Medical Age Journal reported that "Radica, the living half of the Hindu twins, formerly with Barnum's circus, separated by Dr. Doyen when the other twin fell mortally ill, has just returned to Paris from the Riviera, fully recovered from the operation and threatened consumption. She has been adopted by some nuns, who have placed her in an orphanage in the Latin quarter. She is now quite accustomed to individual life." The Journal spoke too soon, by the fall of 1903, Radica's TB had returned and she died that November.
I actually came across these pictures and the brief description of the operation before I started watching Season 2. Strangely enough, it was in a nurse's journal in a midwifery archive in Sweden in November and I snapped some pictures because I thought it was interesting. It wasn't until recently that I saw the pictures again and realized the connection! It's why archives can be so fun...
You can check out some stills that are in the Library of Congress's Flickr feed here, read the British Medical Journal's report of the operation here, and more about Doyen here.
Apparently the video he took became part of "freak show" movies, but I haven't been able to find it online anywhere.
Come in, the stacks are open.
Away from prying eyes, damaging light, and pilfering hands, the most special collections are kept in closed stacks. You need an appointment to view the objects, letters, and books that open a door to the past.