Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Redefining the medical artist

Meena Malhotra
Chicago, Illinois, USA

Medical illustration is a long-standing tradition that dates back to the sixteenth-century anatomist and physician Andreas Vesalius. In his preface to his book, De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), Vesalius commented on the value of images and dissection in learning anatomy:

How much pictures aid the understanding of these things and place a subject before the eyes more precisely than the most explicit language, no one knows who has not had this experience in geometry and other branches of mathematics. Our pictures of the body’s parts will especially satisfy those who do not always have the opportunity to dissect a human body…I have made every effort for a single purpose: …to provide as truthful and complete an account as possible of the fabric of the human body.1

Vesalius emphasized the importance of careful inspection of anatomical parts, introducing the study of human anatomy through first-person dissection, observation, and illustrations. Vesalius combined drawings, text, and typography in his De humani corporis fabrica, for which he commissioned skilled artists to draw the human body as it was dissected. It embodied the spirit of the Renaissance, marking a significant achievement in both science and art.2

His modern followers, Max Brödel (1870–1941) and Frank Netter (1906–1991) continued the standards set by Vesalius in meticulously depicting the human body. In 1894 Brödel, a German medical illustrator, came to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore to do medical illustrations for a physicians. He developed a realistic and compelling method that allowed the viewer to focus on the specific issue being illustrated.3 In 1911, he presided over the creation of the first academic department of medical illustration. In the 1930s, American illustrator and physician Frank Netter began composing illustrations for pharmaceutical companies, which led him to an extensive career of drawing applications of new medical products. He later published an atlas of human anatomy,4 which remains a primary text in medical education today. By advocating the use of visual aids in the learning process, reiterating the importance of anatomical constituents in relation to physiology, and creating a program dedicated to the application of art in medicine, Brödel and Netter defined what it meant to be a “medical artist.”

Brodel, carbon dust
Carbon dust illustration by Brödel
Cancer of the uterus: its pathology, symptomatology, diagnosis, and treatment.
Figure 3. Skull and neck muscles with labels
Watercolor, gouache, colored pencils,
pastels by Frank Netter.

The discipline of medical illustration has since flourished to encompass more types of the natural sciences and also more modes of communication. The rise of technology has introduced new applications of medical visualization, causing a redefinition of the scope of the field. No longer limited to traditional pen and ink illustrations, the broader term, “biomedical visualization,” now includes the following:

  • Traditional and digital illustrations (used in textbooks, journals, and advertisements)
  • 3D modeling and design used in direct-to-consumer simulations, medical gaming, websites and almost any application that an illustration would be used in
  • 2D and 3D animation (used in advertising, education, websites)
  • Interactive media (used in websites and educational/promotional tools, such as quizzes and practice modules)
  • Surgical simulations (used in physician and patient education)
  • Virtual reality (used in surgical applications)
  • Design (packaging of pharmaceuticals, promotional materials)
  • Medical imaging (processing raw data from the body itself, such as CT scans and MRI data into visually readable and accessible forms)
  • Bioengineering (used in product design and programming of simulations)
  • Prosthetics (used to create artificial body parts)

The College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago houses the western hemisphere’s second oldest program in medical illustration. Started in 1921 by Tom Jones, also the founder of the Association for Medical Illustration, this biomedical visualization program offers training in medicine, art, and science—subjects that usually remain the central focus of their profession—to the prospective medical artist. In accordance with Vesalius’ approach of observation, dissection, and visual learning, the biomedical artist serves as a visual communicator of biological processes. These visual explanations of biological developments, processes, abnormalities, and medical procedures offer a deeper understanding of the complex way in which the human body functions, reinforcing the notion that visual messages have the greatest power to communicate information.

Works cited

  1. Garrison D. and Malcolm Haston. (2003). On the Fabric of the Human Body: An annotated translation of the 1543 and 1555 editions of Andreas Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University). Retrieved from http://vesalius.northwestern.edu/flash.html
  2. Saunders, J. B. DeC. M. and Charles D. O’Malley (1973). The Illustrations from the Works of Andreas Vesalius of Brussels. Dover Publications.
  3. Christopher Lawrence. (1992, October). Max Brödel: the man who put art into medicine. Medical History, 36(4), 468–469.
  4. Netter, Frank H. (1997). Atlas of human anatomy (2nd edition). Rittenhouse Book Distributors Inc.

Further reading

Selections from Redefining the Medical Artist


Redefining the Medical Artist is an exhibition of work by the students, faculty, and staff of the University of Illinois Biomedical Visualization program. It was held at the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago from August 7th to October 16th, 2009. The works featured in this show hope not only to increase public and professional awareness of many dimensions of this discipline, but to serve as a platform for networking, sharing research ideas and results, and creating new partnerships within the biomedical and scientific community. By seeing and understanding what the field has to offer, we wish to communicate to the viewer what it is we really do and are capable of achieving for medical progress. In other words, we hope to not only dispel the myth that medical illustrators only draw scientific images for textbooks, but to introduce the public to the scope of our abilities. In the tradition of Vesalius’ drawings, we would like to increase your understanding of the discipline of medical illustration through examples of our work.

MEENA MALHOTRA is a graduate student in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Biomedical Visualization Program. She is serving as a Guest Curator for the International Museum of Surgical Science’s exhibition Redefining the medical artist.

Visit her website at: http://www2.uic.edu/~mmalho2/

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 1, Issue 5 – Fall 2009

Fall 2009



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