The Face of Medical Illustration

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Early in the summer, I wrote a post about Phineas Gage, and how medical illustration helps us see things we otherwise couldn’t. And while working this I was confronted with a question that I’ve been meaning to come back to ever since: what is the real value of medical illustration (or, for digital age, medical animation)? And it seemed that no sooner had I asked that a video surfaced on the internet that seems to answer the question all by itself.

It is a brief 3D animation from the BBC miniseries, Inside the Human Body showing the formation of a human face in utero. The formation of a person’s face “is a complicated ballet of growth and fusion of moving plates of tissue," lead animator David Barker told the New Scientist website. He explained how using 3D models to design the face was “was a nightmare for structures like the nose and palate, which didn't exist for most of the animation." Michael Mosley, the series’ creator and narrator, explains how this sequence takes place between the second and third months after conception. “The three main sections of the puzzle meet in the middle of your top lip, creating the groove that is your philtrum,” Mosley explains in the video.

The question that came to me while I was writing the Gage piece was this: Isn’t working hands on with patients enough for doctors to know how the body is put together? And the answer is that for some situations, yes, hands-on experience is all a physician might need to stitch up a wound, diagnose and illness, or relieves pain. But what about the things that a doctor can’t see with the unaided eye? The way that blood transports food and oxygen and fights off germs; how different cells behave and reproduce; and how certain organs, especially the brain, operate inside a living person are among the numerous functions the body performs outside the perception of the naked eye.

Medical science, just like any other field, operates on theories of how the body works. What medical illustration offers medical experts is a map for the work that they do away from their patients. And in the case of some of history’s greatest medical illustrators—Vesalius, Jan Wandelaar, Max Brödel—very detailed maps that give researchers a tangible concept to apply their research models to.

There are also educational benefits for people outside the healthcare industry. Medical illustration, which now includes medical animation, also helps serve the public, as in the case of the above BBC video, by giving people who aren’t healthcare professionals the chance to understand complex concepts in a practical way. For instance, many of us who had to take anatomy, biology, and health classes in high school don’t go into the healthcare industry.

The illustrations of the body that we had to study, as boring as it may have been then, become incredibly important as we get older. As briefly as we may have encountered those text book illustrations as teens—or an animation in the news, or a diagram in a newspaper or magazine— the truth is that they’ve helped educate us about how our bodies work. We know what our doctors are telling us because of pictures we studied 20 or 30 years ago.

Accurate, dynamic knowledge of the human anatomy is indispensible to the work of the physician. And what the history of medical illustration has shown is that this knowledge doesn’t exist only for doctors: it’s an art that works for all of us.