Medical Art Imitating Life

The ideal human body shape has evolved — for better or worse — over the course of human history. Its depiction in art parallels society’s beliefs regarding what is and is not attractive and desirable. The representation of the human form has, too, undergone a metamorphosis in the oft-forgotten field of medical illustration. With the recent 150-year anniversary of Henry Gray’s classic Anatomy, a look back at the growth and change of anatomical illustration showcases the paradigm shifts in beauty and human appeal.

The most primitive medical illustrations date back thousands of years to crude drawings of hunters and prey, with vital organs delineated with amazing accuracy. The drawings represented the most basic of needs – to kill animals with as much precision as possible. As the human race grew and learned, ancient cultures began to view medical illustration and anatomical drawing as a science, though less exact and formal than medicine itself. Medical artists of ancient Greece and Rome valued prolific production of artistic creations, and ultimately sought to represent the human body more as a pleasing form and less as a scientific tool for education and research purposes. Given the conditions and circumstances of the day, Romans often depicted medical illustrations as battle scenes. They attempted to emphasize the human form, but its focus was often lost in the abundance of details.

Art of the Renaissance combined realism with idealism, and anatomical illustration echoed these conventions. Many medical artists of this period presented the human body in dramatic action, representing philosophical and theological ideas about human nature. Artists’ egos tended to get in the way of the objective portrayal of the human body, as the artists claimed to be the discoverers of knowledge regarding the human body.

During the Victorian era, society valued full-figured bodies, and medical illustrators followed suit. Voluptuous women exemplified health and fertility, and robust men were signs of wealth and prosperity for artists of the day. As art and medicine continued to evolve, medical artists sought realism in their work, and went so far as to produce large, cumbersome medical texts with life-size drawings of human body parts. Gray’s Anatomy, first published in 1858 and illustrated by Henry Vandyke Carter, sought to simplify the presentation of the human body but maintain the realism. Gray aspired to avoid style and reject artistic and societal conventions in the illustrations and represent the body in its most basic form for use in education. Ironically, his avoidance of style resulted in a style all its own and gave rise to one of the most enduring medical texts, even though most of the original illustrations have been replaced in newer editions of Anatomy.

As the human body came to be viewed as a machine, a function of science and medicine, slenderness and athleticism became more popular and appealing. Medical artists now depict the human form with mathematically-calculated precision and proportions that demonstrate society’s ideals of youth and symmetry. But, the field of medical illustrating itself has evolved from artists who got paid to draw dissected cadavers to scientists who combine an understanding and appreciation of science with an eye for detail and form, collaborating with physicians to teach and to learn.


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Kemp M (2010). Style and non-style in anatomical illustration: From Renaissance Humanism to Henry Gray. Journal of anatomy, 216 (2), 192-208 PMID: 20447244

Pearce JM (2009). Henry Gray’s Anatomy. Clinical anatomy (New York, N.Y.), 22 (3), 291-5 PMID: 19280653

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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