Alexander O. Fasser: An American Surgeon in Paris

On 19th October 1915, a young – but established – surgeon, who was only 10 years out of Yale Medical School, departed his home in Belle Fourche, SD, en route to France. He was to work in the American Hospital of Paris, primarily in the American Ambulance Hospital in Neuilly. Hastily set up in the as-yet uncompleted Lycée Pasteur, the Hospital was designated as an overflow and intake area in order to accommodate troops coming back from the front. During his time there – which ended in May 1916 – he would see the front a number of times, visit the airfields with their pusher-style biplanes, journey to Belgium, and see Rheims and the ruins of Verdun. He’d also do brief stints at at least two field hospitals. He brought back horror stories that he shared with his friends and at various political meetings. He brought back new medical knowledge – methods of treating injuries unlike those seen by the average American soldier in daily practice. He also brought back hundreds of 6x13cm glass stereoscopic negatives from his time there, which were later contact printed onto positives.

American Ambulance Hospital, likely in 1916 due to lack of snow on the ground.

Nearly a century later, these negatives and positives – unique records of one man’s experiences in a six-month stint caring for the wounded and the dying – along with some commercial slides Fasser must have bought in his travels wound up in the possession of my friend Doug Jordan, one of the co-founders of the Jordan/Ference Collection, from which all of these stereoviews were borrowed. They had clearly passed through at least one other set of hands prior – as many were poorly taped – some right onto the emulsion (!) – obscurings parts of the images. But it sounded like quite a collection when Doug described it to me, and I was excited to see it when he got the time to scan it and add it to the digital archive.

I was talking to Doug about my upcoming presentation “100 Years of Remembrance”, in which I will be displaying a couple hundred 3D images from the Great War set to readings of the poetry and letters of Wilfred Owen, and inquired about the status of this collection. He hadn’t had time to sort or scan it yet; it was in a very random order, many of the slides were in terrible shape and would need a lot of work, and it’s wasn’t high in the queue at the moment for these reasons. I suggested that I’d be willing to clean up the slides and make high-resolution archival scans if Doug sent the collection my way, and he assented. And thus, at the very beginning of what looks to be a months-long process (that these slides were stored quite improperly, and were in rough shape and random order was no exaggeration, though many are in surprisingly good condition considering what little care was taken by the previous owner), I present some of the first digitized versions of some absolutely unique stereoviews taken by an American surgeon in France. Today, we’ll take a look at some of the works that Fasser shot inside the hospitals:

Patient Portraits

Fasser made numerous portraits of his patients, which are among his most technically accomplished and, at the same time, most humanizing pieces of work. In no cases that I’ve come across does he resort to the type of sentimentality that would breed pity for his subjects, nor does he portray them as particularly heroic. Instead, they are just men – wounded in battle, hoping for a speedy recovery. Here are a handful of examples:

Portrait of a patient in traction. Probably a later work, given the superior stereo effect and composition.
3/4 profile of patient with severe jawline injuries wearing a bib. Again, probably a later work in the series, due to superb stereo effect and composition.
Portrait of patient with chest and arm wounds resting in bed. Note the excellent composition and dramatic lighting here, and the wonderfully stoic expression on the patient’s face.
Profile of a patient with his head bandaged and his nose missing, with severe swelling to the face. This seems an earlier work; the framing is more amateurish, and the stereo effect is minimal. Fasser clearly purchased this camera – obscure in America, but quite common in France – in the winter; by early spring he had improved greatly. This is likely one of his earlier portraits.

Medical Studies

In addition to his very humanizing portraits of his patients, Fasser took some stereographic photos that were clearly intended for use in medical studies – and indeed, there is evidence that he used these in lectures at least until the 1930s. Here are two examples.

Study of injuries to the hip, backside, and upper back of a wounded soldier, who is lying on his side to allow air to reach the wounds.
Study of abdominal injuries sufficient to expose internal organs. Abdominal injuries would become an area of specialization for the surgeon in later years, and he would deliver lectures on them – using slides like this for illustration.

Other Hospital Scenes

Fasser photographed a lot of different subjects – people, places, landscapes, artillery pieces, and especially early airplanes – which will be explored in later essays. In fact, his early outdoor shots, possibly taken with a different camera (another topic for later discussion) are among his worst, photographically; he was clearly just learning whilst snow covered the ground near France. It seems as if the idea of using his camera in the hospital was a later idea on his part – merging his work and his travel record, as it were. His hospital stereophotos all show at least a modicum of talent – his earliest works, sadly, show an amateur with a decent eye who doesn’t grasp that stereography cannot simply use photographic techniques to get great results. In any case, here are three more images from inside the various hospitals at which Fasser worked:

Field hospital. This was certainly not the American Ambulance Hospital, but rather, one of the hospitals set up nearer the action in France or Belgium in order to get medical aid to troops wounded on the front with haste.
This exam table in what appears to be a dual-purpose exam/operating room looks like a precursor to the later Shampaine exam tables that became standard fare in hospitals by the 1930s. The stereographic effect employed by Fasser here is excellent.
Photograph from an inter-level landing in the hospital. Although this photograph betrays Fasser’s biggest flaw where architecture is concerned – namely, a seeming inability to get proper vertical and horizontal lines – it nevertheless demonstrates an excellent grasp of lighting and some very impressive stereo effect.

By Way of Closing

I’m very excited that Doug has entrusted me with creating the permanent digital versions of the A. O. Fasser (his preferred designation) collection – and will continue to make posts on his work from time to time through this Month of Remembrance and continuing thereafter. Expect to see a much richer biography, analysis on cameras and techniques, a revelation about emulsion coatings (for those of you as nerdy as myself) and an extremely wide range of subjects, as mentioned above. I hope you’re as excited as I am to delve deep into the Fasser collection, and will look forward to sharing more of the good doctor’s work as I discover more and catalogue my results!


As a sidenote, the camera(s) which Dr. Fasser shot with produce remarkably nice anaglyphic merges. While some of them are rather hyper, none of them are unviewable, and very few professional companies and photographers from the era can say the same for their works!

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