The importance of the medical illustrator today – Of all the trends that have defined 21st-century education, none are more obvious than the increasing incorporation of technology in the classroom. Many students now in dental school will remember the clumsy introduction of smartboards into their primary school classrooms. Educational technologies have come a long way since the early 2000s, but if one thing has been constant, it is change itself.
Within the field of dental education, these technologies have been incorporated into the pandemic-era learning environment — lecture recordings and online classrooms most obviously. However, with the advent of three-dimensional anatomy imaging software, even courses such as anatomy labs, which have resisted instructional changes for decades, have started to migrate into digital spaces. With high-resolution photographs and three-dimensional modeling, a whole new approach to anatomical study is developing. Yet even, and perhaps especially, as technologies change, the role of the medical illustrator remains essential.
Most students of anatomy are at least passingly familiar with Netter’s “Atlas of Human Anatomy.” Netter’s seminal work, originally published in 1989 and now on its seventh edition, is famous for its colorized and clearly visualized depictions of the human body. It is here that any modern appreciation of medical illustration begins. Recall your first time in an anatomy lab. Can you remember the difficulty of distinguishing even simple features?
The medical illustrator can simplify the endless complexity of anatomy into comprehensible diagrams and figures; layers can be added or subtracted, or even made partially transparent. With the turn of a page, the illustrator exposes features that might take hours of dissection by a deft hand to reveal. And with a flip back, the tissue they removed is restored. Anatomical study would be all but impossible without this convenience.
The benefit of transparent layering of the body can also not be understated. An obvious consequence of dissection is that once tissue is removed, it can only be reapproximated — not reattached. And even once reapproximated, the structures uncovered are again hidden. By rendering skin and muscle with various layers of transparency, the underlying structures can be better understood in terms of their relations.
Even as we move toward a digital approach to anatomical instruction, the medical illustrator remains vital. In fact, even more is required of them; digital models must be shaped and overlain atop high-resolution photography. A three-dimensional diagram might bear little resemblance to Netter’s illustrations, and even less to Renaissance explorations of anatomy, but the function is much the same.
Yet the medical illustrator’s role extends still further. The illustrator’s renderings can extend beyond the capabilities of cameras and microscopes. With their aid, the internal processes of cells or the macroscopic processes of physiology can be visualized or animated. To understand and perceive the body as it functions would be impossible without their aid.
Innovations in medical education are refreshing and welcome. While we move toward digital solutions, it is important to remember that a human is still at the helm of the visualizations we use to learn. The role of the medical illustrator is a crucial one that will continue to be appreciated by students in the sciences and patients who receive the boons of their depictions.
~Alan Booth, Pittsburgh ’22