For more than 2,000 years, artists have been illustrating the intricate architecture of the human body. From early medical procedures watched by hundreds in a crammed amphitheater to recording pathological diseases, these illustrations have endured the test of time and have provided us valuable insight into our evolving understanding of the body. We remember renaissance artist and engineer Leonardo da Vinci for his famous Mona Lisa portrait, but less well known are his 800 anatomical drawings, which pioneered the use of cross sections and exploded views. He is perhaps, in a contemporary sense, the first medical illustrator, though his beautiful representations were never published in his lifetime, and remained obscure until their rediscovery in the 1800s.
Near the end of Leonardo’s life came Andreas Vesalius, a Belgian physician and anatomist. He began his medical career at the University of Padua as a lecturer famous for doing his own dissections. In 1542 he published De humani corporis fabrica libri septum, considered to be the first scientific treatise on anatomy. Its beautiful and unprecedentedly accurate illustrations were widely admired and plagiarized. The use of woodcut illustrations became the new standard of anatomical illustration for the next three centuries. Just this year, the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library (located right next to Robarts Library) acquired an annotated 1555 edition of Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica. Filled with the author’s own extensive hand-written notes and corrections, it appears that Vesalius was preparing a new edition that was never materialized. This unique volume is available for viewing at Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and will be a showpiece as the planned exhibit in summer 2014 to honour the 500th anniversary of Vesalius’ birth. Unquestionably, it is one of the most important books in the history of medicine.
The contemporary field of medical illustration as we know it began with the arrival of Max Brödel at Johns Hopkins University in 1894. Persuaded to leave his native Germany, Max Brödel pursued and almost singlehandedly created and defined the profession of medical illustration in the modern era. He was extraordinarily skilled at creating illustrations in traditional pen and ink, and also pioneered new technique: the use of carbon dust on clay-coated board. This technique was particularly suited to the era of black and white printing, and allowed medical illustrators to produce gray-scale tonal illustrations with great fidelity to living tissue. Undoubtedly, his most significant legacy is creating the first formal program in medical illustration in 1911, the Art as Applied to Medicine (AAM) program at Johns Hopkins Medical School.
Maria Torrence Wishart, a graduate of of Brödel’s program at Johns Hopkins University, founded the Department of Medical Art Service in the Anatomy Building (now the McMurrich Building) here at the University of Toronto in 1925, Wishart worked with a number of other Canadian students of Brödel, including Dorothy Foster Chubb. With the growing demand for scientifically trained illustrators, Wishart ultimately established her own medical illustration program at U of T in 1945. In 1943, Dr. John Charles Boileau Grant, Chair of Anatomy and a small team of illustrators (including Dorothy Foster Chubb, Nancy Joy and Elizabeth Blackstock) produced the first edition of University of Toronto’s very own Grant’s Atlas. The atlas was based on a series of elegant dissections done either by Grant or others under his supervision. Many of these dissections are currently housed in Grant’s Museum at the Medical Sciences Building. Seventy years after its original publication, Grant’s Atlas remains a best seller and one of the gold-standard atlases of medical education.
Today, Wishart’s program has evolved into the Master of Science in Biomedical Communications (MScBMC), which is unique in Canada and one of four internationally accredited programs of its kind. BMC continues its tradition of bridging disciplines (art, science, medicine, and communication) to develop visual materials for medical education, health promotion, and the dissemination of new scientific discoveries.
As a second year MScBMC student, it has been a captivating experience striving for academic excellence and innovation in health communication and visualization. Medical illustration has stayed true to its roots but has also moved forward with technological advancements. Perhaps one of the most rewarding experiences is our opportunity to collaborate with various field experts, especially with the Department of Immunology, using our unique skill set. Every year around November, researchers from the Department of Immunology present their research and areas in need of effective visuals to first year MScBMC students. It is here that first year MScBMC choose their topics of interest and begin developing visual solutions for these complex communication problems. This bridge has produced impressive illustrations that have been shown around the world in conference presentations and in high-impact journal publications. In the next article I will dive further into this unique collaboration, and expand on my journey in pursuit of becoming a medical illustrator.
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