5 Things We Learned from The Knick's Medical Advisor

Mary Cybulski/Cinemax
Mary Cybulski/Cinemax / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Dr. Stanley Burns is the medical advisor for The Knick, a medical drama starring Clive Owen and directed by Steven Soderbergh. We have a lengthy interview with Dr. Burns; here are five highlights.

1. His Million-Photo Collection is Mostly Organized in His Head

When I asked how Dr. Burns keeps his collection organized, his answer surprised me:

Dr. Burns: It's in my head. [E]very time we do a book, then that subject gets organized, it gets scanned, it gets numbered, labeled. So that as far as [the upcoming book] Stiffs, Skulls & Skeletons is concerned, the book will have 450 photographs, but in order to produce that we've scanned about somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 images from which we edit it down.

2. Clive Owen Could Suture You Up

Dr. Burns taught the cast basic medical procedures so they could do a convincing job on-camera...and the actors feel quite confident about their skills.

Dr. Burns: [The actors said], "Well, if I came across an accident or if I had to suture someone up now, I know how to do it." And this was a general comment right across the board and it is something great to learn, how to be able to put stitches in and take stitches and do all that.

Dr. Burns added, "I'd let Clive suture me up."

3. Doctors Became Addicts Via Self-Experimentation

Discussing the various drug addictions depicted in the show, Dr. Burns explained that these addictions sometimes came about because doctors were doing their jobs.

Dr. Burns: [Addictions were] common, but not for the reasons that you think. It was common because this was an era when doctors experimented on themselves. [...] I always talk about the great neurologist Henry Head, who cut his own nerves, and of course he would have a permanent defect afterwards, to find out what innervation was and what it was like. ... [Doctors] practiced on themselves and they didn't know the side effects of all these drugs.

4. Pioneers of the X-Ray Lost Fingers

Asked about the dangers presented by early X-ray machines shown on The Knick, Dr. Burns told me a rather grim story.

Dr. Burns: How dangerous? [...] Edison, who of course was a great electrical scientist of the era, because you need electricity to run the machine, recognized that his hands were getting red, I think, so he had his assistant [Clarence] Dally doing all the X-rays and the fluoroscopies, and Dally was dead by 1904. I think he had only been working on it for about seven or eight years and what happens is the doctor's fingers were falling off, they were getting squamous cell carcinoma, and a whole bunch of other carcinomas from exposure to the X-ray.

5. Today's Medical Practices May Look Foolish in 100 Years

Closing out our interview, Dr. Burns gives some perspective on technological advances in medicine.

Dr. Burns: One of the statements I say to everyone I meet, just so you get the correct idea about these doctors, is that these doctors from 1900 and the doctors from 1700 and 1800 are just as smart as you and I, just as innovative, just as genius. The problem is they labored under inferior knowledge in technology and all they tried to do was help and heal. They did the best they could, but the advance of medicine and technology is so great that a hundred years later a lot of the stuff looks foolish and you're wondering why a patient would put up with it. And what we're doing today will be looked at, I'm sure, a hundred years from now the same way.

Read the Rest

We have a full interview with Dr. Burns touching on the medical aspects of his work with The Knick. The show airs Fridays at 10pm on Cinemax.