Medical Art and why this still exists today.

Throughout history we have explored the human body, what it is, how it works and figuring out cures to diseases and injury. Thankfully nowadays we know best not to look up zodiac signs for cures on body parts, however in the past dissecting human bodies was illegal. Most primitive images were very basic crude guesses, based off the insides in animals such as pigs. As you can guess, these were not accurate but were used in medical practices. Thanks to the invention of the printing press in 1440, there was an improvement in accuracy and work was more available to get a hold of but of course this was not good enough. People needed accurate images of the human body.

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) during the Renaissance period performed over 30 dissections himself and created very detailed studies: “He used the freely available bodies of dead criminals to anatomise the structure of muscles and nerves.”( he studied from life, which provided an accurate understanding of the human body. The Renaissance period was a time artists created work as realistically as they could, a revolution in art history and also medical. Da Vinci’s studies of the human body was a leap forward in the medical world, but sadly none of these works were published in his lifetime so people at the time still used crude images as references. Da Vinci’s medical studies continue to inspire people today as there is, shockingly, very few flaws, leaving Da Vinci years ahead of his time.

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1554) created the book De Humani Corporis Fabrica. He stressed his students not to rely on past teachings or what they have been taught by others but to discover for themselves, which helped push people forward to experimenting. Medical studies at this time remained at an good level of understanding for the period.

An example from Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica

By the 17th century, harvesting cadavers (a corpse used for medical reasons) became illegal and the only source for fresh cadavers was criminals from the gallows. Dissections were needed for first-hand teaching for students and exploring the body for medical and scientific reasons and dissections were usually performed in front of an audience. As operations usually failed, no matter how quickly the operation was performed, doctors required more bodies than what was available for research(of course they usually failed for a lack of knowledge about hygiene and other factors). Corpses of recent deaths at the time were vulnerable to grave robbing and being used illegally as cadavers, with doctors usually in on the act. The infamous murderers Burke and Hare made money from doctors looking for cadavers by murdering innocent people.

As corpses were not yet possible to preserve, wax models were created as they were not illegal to obtain and would not rot away.

In the 19th century there became a vast improvement with colour printing and its availability to the masses. Henry Grey (1827–1861) was a surgeon and thanks to his friend Dr. H V Vandyke Carter (who was also a surgeon) who had created 363 illustrations, Gray published his famous book “Gray’s Anatomy” (First Edition, “Anatomy: Descriptive and Surgical” (1858)).

Medical Art was not recognised as its own profession until the 20th century. Thanks to technology advances, such as the x-ray was invented (1895), which enabled us the ability to view a “live” image of the inside of a patient. However students struggle with researching from 2D profile views and photographs can only show us what is directly in front of the viewer and x-rays can only provide information on certain tissues.  Only artists can create visuals concerning accurate 3D explosive views “cut into” figures and also those that the human eye cannot always see such as fetuses and powerful imagery of anatomy all laid out in”floating” poses. Doctors use images by medical artists to use as references, guidance and also to demonstrate performances to patients and students. Many medical artists work alongside doctors and create studies first-hand in hospitals.

Frank Netter (1906-1991) is known as one of the most influential medical artists and surgeons and produced over 4000 illustrations in his career. His images are beautifully created and show the behavior of patients (those could be suffering from depression or asthma for example) and the images of diseases on a cellular level and also how to apply medicines or perform specific operations: “Netter’s work was voluminous, covering a vast array of topics and diseases.” ( his work is still used today and has always been free to obtain. I find his work powerful and stunning to view and take in all the colourful detail.

Today, Medical art can be used to communicate to the public about messages around personal health and medical procedures through adverts in posters, leaflets and animations for tv (for example flu vaccines, no smoking campaigns). 3D modelling (computer based virtual reality simulations and physical transparent models) are used for training operations such as surgery and CPR. Traditional wax and latex models are still used as dummies for medical and dentistry training to allow work on a physical object that is not a living person.

Also photographs being shown to patients in question can be horrific, especially to younger patients. Medical Artwork is created for older generations who may have no access to the internet as well as the visually impaired, children and so forth, so the patient can understand what is going on, to also ease the nerves. Medical artwork is useful for researching theories and for displaying visual information for the news.

Forensic artists are needed for forensic reconstruction, to create a view of a persons face, whether they are a victim of crime or when unidentified skeletal remains have been uncovered (for example from historic sites). The artist will have a knowledge of body construction and will be able to create a drawing and/or a 3D model based off of the remains, such as the skull. Scenarios involving bodily injury of victims can be reconstructed by Forensic artists based off of the angles of flesh destroyed and other factors, so the police can discover the cause and possibly the time of an injury.

Of course, human bodies can still be donated as cadavers and even shockingly for entertainment(kinda reminds me of how surgeries were once performed in front of an audience). In Gunther von Hagens’ famous “BodyWorlds” exhibition shows anatomical figures of donated bodies that have been preserved. It is artistic, educational but can also be viewed an un-ethical and visually horrific.

Medical Art is a powerful tool which  provides us with life-changing visual information about ourselves.



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