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Medical Illustration Starts with Dissection
By Kate Dalke

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Anatomie des parties de la génértion de l’homme et de la femme Paris, 1773. Colored mezzotint. National Library of Medicine.
Jacques Fabian Gautier D’Agoty (1717-1785).

To succeed as a medical illustrator, you need to master the science and the art of the human body.

Today, university students training to be medical illustrators take the same molecular biology courses as their counterparts training to be physicians. And like medical students, they are required to dissect cadavers.

At the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, medical students vie for a space at the dissecting table with their classmates in the Art as Applied to Medicine program.

Because they are visually inclined, student illustrators tend to have a sense of how the body fits together and can use their problem-solving skills to delicately probe how muscles fit together and where organs sit, says David A. Rini, who teaches in the Johns Hopkins program.

Since the birth of medical illustration, great artists have been skilled in the art of dissection. One of the founding texts in the field, De Humani Corporis Fabrica by Andreas Vesalius, was published in 1543 and is still celebrated for its accuracy and vision.

View a slideshow of a wide variety of medical illustrations.
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Dream Anatomy

A master of both dissection and illustration, Vesalius showed that an artist must fully understand the human body to accurately depict its inner workings.

Of course, some medical illustrators take creative liberties. For example, Jacques Fabian Gautier D'Agoty's eighteenth-century picture of a pregnant woman has an eerie combination of French portraiture and anatomical dissection.

Historically, medical illustration texts were created for an elite group interested in anatomy, says Anne Altemus, president of the Association of Medical Illustrators and a member of the Hopkins faculty. But today the audience for medical illustration is virtually everyone.

Medical illustration student have at their disposal an increasingly sophisticated array of computer software, but their teachers point out that nothing can take the place of an understanding of light and form, style and craftsmanship.

“Once students get on the computer, they forget their drawing skills,” says Andrew Swift, who teaches in the medical illustration program at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta.

“It's our job to teach them little tricks to keep the art in there,” Swift adds.

Johns Hopkins and the Medical College of Georgia are among a handful of schools in North America that teach medical illustration.

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