From Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man to Frank Netter: An ode to the best medical artists who uncovered secrets of the body

Mehar Bhatia

Why would an artist ever want to attend medical school? Is a question I would love to answer.

I have struggled with career indecision since my senior secondary schooling; choosing my intellect for medicine over a natural attraction for art and creativity wasn’t easy.

Draw what can’t be seen, watch what’s never been done, and tell thousands about it without saying a word.”

– Frank Netter, M.D

Since medieval times there have never been defined boundaries between what art and medicine had to offer.

Manuscripts and scholarly expositions of the Arabic society containing the most emblematic and traditional illustrations of procedures were the only few evidences available to visualise human anatomy. They were raw, unrealistic and were drawn with the simple intent to elucidate certain principles for the purpose of teaching alone.

Human cadaveric dissection was completely forbidden due to a number of religious reasons that prohibited people from touching a dead body, let alone dissecting it into parts, and economic factors which included the cost of preservation of corpses.

The advent of dissection tools in the 13th century, opening up of restrictions on the use of dead bodies for medical study and the invention of book printing in the 2nd half of 15th century, were 3 major reasons that transformed the practice of human depiction through art. Having an actual cadaver to work on was an absolute learning tool for budding illustrators.

Medical illustrators is a term used for artists who can capture the human body and express its anatomy or physiology on paper/ digital media, reflecting structures and illnesses.

Two earliest medical investigators in Alexandria were Herophilus (c. 330 – 260 B.C.) and Erasistratus (c. 304 – 250 B.C.) T alking about some more celebrated illustrators in hierarchy;

Artist – Leonardo da Vinci Year – 1452-1519

One of the most accomplished individuals of the Renaissance period, da Vinci’s Vitruvian man was one most significant contribution to the medical world. The drawing, which is a simple depiction of a ‘ man in 2 superimposed positions with his arms and legs apart, inscribed in a circle and square ‘, conveyed his keen interest in proportions.

Landmark work – The proportional relationship of parts – reflects a medical equilibrium and stability of structures within the body (correlations of ideal human proportion with geometry). Since his description of human form, there have been great advancements in the depiction of the human body.

Artist – Berengaria Da Carpi Year – 1460-1530

He was the first anatomist to include his work in medical textbooks and contributed significantly to revelation of human brain anatomy through his book ‘de Fractura Cranei’ on cranio cerebral surgery.

Landmark work – ‘Commentaria’ – Berengaria’s textual masterpiece had amazing illustrations that even contradicted Galen’s physiology. His contributions played a noteworthy role in metamorphosing medieval knowledge into modern science.

Artist – Andreas Vesalius. Year – 1514 – 1564

Often referred to as the founder of human anatomy, he revolutionised the study of biological symptoms and practice of medicine. De Humain Corpora Fabrica Libri Septum – the findings in this book were a collection of observations taken directly from human dissections and this marked the beginning of true evidence based learning.

Highlight work – He produced flow charts on blood supply and nervous system, which was used as reference aid for medical students then.

Mid 1800’s saw the emergence of classic illustrators of the most authoritative and comprehensive text on the subject – the Grays’s Anatomy. Popular since then, Henry Vadyke Carter vividly depicted coloured, clearly labelled diagrams that made a medico visualise anatomical concepts beautifully. X-rays were also discovered by Konrad Roentgen around this time.

Period of 1906-1991 witnessed two notable medical artists – Max Brodel and Dr. Frank Henry Netter M.D.

Brodel’s illustrations were not only extraordinary but the techniques (carbon dust technique) he used brought utmost precision and advancement in the quality of medical art.

Netter, also known as the Michelangelo of Medicine, was one of the few outstanding anatomists of the era, who was both a physician as well as an artist. What set him apart from his contemporaries was his depiction of real life portraits of the suffering. He has created superb images and powerful teaching aids – a surgeon who lived before digital tools were available to help!



Google search ; Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian man, Andreas Vesalius, Berengario Da Carpi, Frank Netter


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