A painter can imitate life through his art, but he can also imitate death.
In 1876, Thomas Eakins talks his way into the operating theatre of the famous surgeon, Samuel Gross. As Eakins sketches, the patient’s mother, Abigail Doverlund, has a near seizure at the brutality of the operation. An anesthesiologist keeps her boy in a coma, true, but the filth and lack of sterility at the scene fill her with dread.
A homicide detective, George Callahan, investigating a series of mysterious disappearances, watches the surgery, too. Soon he finds evidence leading him to an anatomy lab tucked in the basement of Jefferson Medical College.
Abigail, widowed owner of a failing newspaper, struggles to keep her son alive. Her paper’s circulation grows, however, with both its coverage of the disappearances and her science editor’s muckraking articles on infections and the use--or lack of use--of new antiseptic techniques. Meanwhile Eakins, when not working feverishly to create his masterpiece, utilizes his med school connections to supply his art classes with anatomic sketching materials. Gross himself has a never-ending need for cadavers for his medical students.
Abigail and George meet but have trouble acknowledging their mutual attraction, for each retains psychic wounds from the Great War. As their love grows, as Abigail’s reportage leads her from hospital to hospital and teaches her about microbial theory, the dark side of Eakins and Gross’s genius becomes clear. George, searching Northern Liberties, a downtrodden quarter of Philadelphia, unearths a macabre crime, but not until he comes close to losing his beloved Abigail.
When scientific and artistic experts converge for the 1876 Centennial Exposition, multiple threads of love, art, medicine, and murder weave a cloth of beauty, passion, death, and redemption, a tapestry evoked by that horribly wonderful painting itself, The Gross Clinic.