Where’s The Knick Headed? Look at the Man Who Inspired It
Season Two of The Knick began with a double dose of cold turkey. The show’s central character, Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) is in rehab for his cocaine addiction—which means getting heroin to wean him off the stuff. (Hey, that’s how they did it in the 1910s.) Thackery’s coworker isn’t pleased about the treatment, though, so he kidnaps the good doctor, throws him on a sailboat, and forces him to learn nautical knots until he gets clean.
What’s surprising about the process isn’t its brusqueness; it’s that it actually happened.
Thackery is based on a late 19th-century doctor named William Stewart Halsted—and in 1884, Halsted was a mess. He had discovered cocaine a few years prior while testing out the anesthetic uses of the drug on himself, and in no time flat had become an “accidental addict.” (1880s medicine, everyone!) A year later, his pathologist friend Dr. William Henry Welch suggested a treatment: a sea trip to the Windward Islands in the Caribbean. It…well, it failed; Halsted returned and checked into Butler Hospital in Rhode Island, where doctors treated his addiction with morphine.
But while The Knick may have taken some license and reversed the particulars, it’s clear that there’s plenty about Dr. Halsted’s life that give us some clues on where Thack is heading (other than to hell, dipped in Crisco).
When we last left our favorite degenerate genius, he was drinking—but in The Knick‘s larger narrative, he asking the board of the Knickerbocker to let him set up a research center for the study of addiction. Now, there’s no evidence Halsted ever showed much intellectual interest in addiction, which makes this seem like the point where Thackery’s fictional life begins to diverge from Halsted’s real one. (Though Halsted actually showed up as a character on The Knick, albeit briefly: early in Season 1 as Dr. Christiansen’s mento.)
But if past is prologue, The Knick will likely go back to Halsted’s biography for writing tips, or at least guidance.
Last season, Thackery tried to give his own blood to a young patient in the surgical theater. She died almost immediately—people didn’t know yet what blood types were—and has been haunting Thack this season. That was inspired by an episode in which Halsted performed an emergency blood transfusion on his sister with plasma from his own veins. (Through a stroke of luck, or genetics, her body accepted his blood without incident.) Halsted also developed a revolutionary procedure for hernia repairs, something Thackery did with Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland) last season.
Given the drama of those three things, it would seem like there’s nothing left to pick from the Halsted Myth for story development. Not so fast. The real man, who would eventually become one of the founding four physicians of the (then) new Johns Hopkins, has a long list of medical insanity to choose from. There’s his radical mastectomy treatments for breast cancer. There’s the time he published a paper while high on cocaine and it proved to be “such gibberish that his career…was effectively over.” And of course, there’s the time he performed one of the first surgeries to remove gallstones. On his mother. On a kitchen table.
Yet, the most compelling part of Halsted’s life yet to be explored on-screen isn’t medical. In 1890, Halsted married a woman named Caroline Hampton, whose mother had once dated a guy named William Thackeray. Similar to The Knick‘s nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), Caroline grew up in the South and moved to New York as a young woman to go to nursing school in 1885. The Johns Hopkins Hospital opened the next year, and Halsted made her the head operating room nurse.
So far, so pedestrian. But. The constant disinfecting procedures needed to be a scrub nurse became too much for Hampton’s sensitive skin, so Halsted asked Goodyear if his company might be willing to make gloves for Caroline—who in turn became the first person to wear rubber gloves in the operating room. (The next time you hear that chilling snap! as your doctor prepares to do something horribly invasive, please do think of dear sweet nurse Hampton.) Could The Knick be setting Thackery and ELkins up for similar romantic and medical developments? It’s impossible to know, but Lucy Elkins is awfully fair-skinned.
One thing’s worth betting on, though: Thackery will never get clean. William Stewart Halsted died just before his 70th birthday, a smartly dressed man his whole life, but still demonized by his addictions.
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