When ARTS AND SCIENCE COLLIDE: Medical Illustration

Don’t be misled into thinking that combining arts and science is a current fad. Quite the contrary: the collision of arts and science is an ancient practice, it’s embedded into our daily lives and the key to engaging future audiences.

Arts and science remain integral to our lives – think of the combination of design and engineering required to create elegant and functional structures, the integration of music and mathematics to deliver breathtaking scores, the medical discoveries that have been inspired by creative thinking, the new materials in fashion, the functionality and aesthetics in our technology and devices, the fusion of flavor and science in the foods we eat, and the creativity and coding genius in the games we play. 

For example a medical illustrator is a professional artist with advanced education in both the life sciences and visual communication. Collaborating with scientists, physicians, and other specialists, medical illustrators transform complex information into visual images that have the potential to communicate to broad audiences.

A medical illustrator is a visual problem solver. Background research, including reading scientific papers, meeting with scientific experts, perhaps observing surgery or a laboratory procedure, is often an integral part of the creative process.

The work of medical illustrators promotes education, research, patient care, public relations, and marketing efforts.

 A brief history of medical illustration

For over 2000 years artists have illustrated the intricate structure of the body, creating images to elucidate medical procedures and record the pathologies of the body. These illustrations have often endured long after the text of a tome. Medical illustration created for instruction first appeared in Hellenic Alexandria during the 4th century BC or early 3rd century BC. Created on individual sheets of papyrus, Hellenic illustration covered anatomy, surgery, obstetrics and plants of medical value. Early anatomic illustration centered on the five-figure series, with each figure representing an organ system diagrammed within a body in a squatting pose, limbs splayed. In contrast, surgical illustrations were more naturalistic covering a wide range of medical procedures.

The Renaissance

Progress accelerated during the Renaissance with many innovations. Artists inspired by Greek and Roman statues created naturalistic representations of the human figure aided by the discovery of the laws of perspective and their own dissections of cadavers. The five-figure series gave way to more accurate representations of anatomy. Graceful anatomical figures were often posed dramatically in landscapes amid bits of classical architecture in startling contrast to the bare backgrounds of earlier and later illustrations.

The Renaissance gave us Leonardo da Vinci, the first medical illustrator in the contemporary sense. Stunningly inventive, he melded a scientific understanding of anatomy with great artistic skill. Leonardo pursued his own anatomy book, and pioneered the use of cross sections and exploded views. Lacking the temperament and resources to publish his work, Leonardo's 800 anatomical drawings remained unpublished until the 1800's.

Major Atlases of Anatomy

As Leonardo neared the end of his career, Andreas Vesalius began his medical career by authoring and publishing De Corpus Fabrica Humani, the most well known book of anatomy ever. Completed in just four years, it influenced medical illustration for centuries. While much is known about Vesalius and the printing of the Fabrica, little is known about the artists who illustrated it leading to speculation revolving around Titian's circle. 

In 1725 Berhard Siegfried Albinius of Leyden in the Netherlands asked the Dutch artist and engraver Jan Wandelaar to assist him with a new painstakingly accurate anatomy text. Twenty-eight years were spent producing two books devoted to muscular and skeletal anatomy. The full length plates' graceful poses and lush backgrounds owed much to the Fabrica, but the work was original, unprecedented in accuracy and beautifully engraved.

In the 19th century new printing techniques allowed illustrators to work in a variety of media. Color printing was refined and became practical, helping usher in color atlases of pathology and colorful anatomy books for the public.

Medical Illustration in America

At the end of the 19th century a charming, dapper young artist was persuaded to leave his native Germany and pursue medical illustration at Johns Hopkins. Max Brödel would have an incomparable impact on medical illustration. Almost singlehandedly he would create and define the profession of medical illustration. While his magnificent illustration work in pen and ink, and carbon dust, a technique he devised, are an immense legacy, Brödel's most significant legacy is the first school of medical illustration. In 1911 he became the director of the Department of Art as Applied to Medicine. As the new department's sole instructor he proved himself to be an outstanding natural teacher. Other medical illustration programs sprang up across the United States and Canada. Graduates of Brödel's tutelage and the other schools would transform medical illustration into a profession, leading to the formation of the Association of Medical Illustrators in 1945.

Looking ahead, nearly every future-focused sector, from artificial intelligence and machine thinking, to space travel, requires two attributes for success: the curiosity and creativity of art and science. 

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Art and Science of Medical Illustration