How the Arts Revolutionized Medicine


Throughout the last century, the medical establishment has felt surges of innovation and an abundance of clinical breakthroughs that have advanced our understanding of human physiology, prolonging the human lifespan. For the most part, these advancements have been credited to perpetual inquiry and the strength of the collective scientific conscience at meticulously making sense of disease on a molecular, individual, and population scale. The lifelong dedication that innumerable scientists and physicians have devoted towards the pursuit of greater understanding is deeply commendable. However, there is another discipline of work whose contributions, which are largely forgotten in today’s age, paved the road to modern medicine centuries back: the arts. 

From certain perspectives, it may be difficult to make any distinction between science and art. Underlying both the craft of an artist and the investigation of a scientist is an experimental process, with the artist entering a state of creativity to bring life to his work and the scientist utilizing it to make sense of his work. Serving on the brink of the known and the unknown, both the artist and the scientist dedicate their attention to nature at a microscopic level in the pursuit of a singular goal: to achieve a deeper understanding of the human condition. The artist is lost in the process of layering colors, sculpting, and shading to bring conception to an aspect of nature; the scientist is lost in layers of assessments, scrutinizing variables with an ax of unwavering objectivity to make sense of nature. Both are imbued with a curiosity that drives endless observation and problem-solving. Though their work appears fundamentally different, their successes are bred by fierce attention to detail and shared talent at recognizing what truly matters in the context of life and nature.  

During the Renaissance, between 1400 to 1700 CE, tremendous progress was made in European medical knowledge, with the findings paving the way for modern medicine. While recently, the interdisciplinary interactions between healthcare leaders, computer scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs have successfully allowed technologies to join the treatment process, it was during the Renaissance that an interdisciplinary interaction between artists and scientists was cultivated. This collaboration accelerated the progression of human life by cementing one of the most revolutionary paradigm shifts in the history of medicine: it revamped the education and knowledge of every physician and medical student. 


The Impact of Illustrations

While human dissections had always been the main source of information to medical students for centuries, the religious taboos of different eras made the process of acquiring cadavers a challenge. Not only was there a shortage of bodies, but poor preservation techniques turned the learning process into a race against the onset of decay. If a cadaver was available by mere chance, medical students were not only expected to work quickly, dissecting and studying each organ system as efficiently as they could, but they were entirely reliant on their memory and retention of the newly acquired knowledge for future medical contexts. While there may have been anatomical text to reference, graphic visuals of the human body – sketched, as there was no Google – were absent from the coursework. Most physicians weren’t skilled at making illustrations of their dissections, and as a consequence, knowledge was limited to those with surgical experience. This limited the medical education of students for centuries, restricting them to a relatively weak understanding of human physiology by today’s standards. 

During the 16th century, this knowledge gap was shortened as artists began to collaborate with dissectors to prepare detailed anatomical illustrations that could then be incorporated into anatomical text. While every textbook we own today is filled with visuals, these illustrations – intricately sketched and shaded with fine, visceral detail – were the first two dimensional anatomical models that liberated medical students from their learning constraints. Students no longer had to rely on a months-prior dissection to recollect information. Instead, these models provided an immediate learning opportunity and infused a more robust understanding of the human body within the entire medical community.

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) was an influential anatomist who resolved countless misconceptions of the human body that had been established in ancient times. He published De Humani Corporis Fabrica in 1543, a renowned book that contained many anatomical sketches prepared during his cadaver dissections. The drawings brought attention to physiological details that had been missed for decades, challenging the academic world and transforming how human anatomy was viewed and researched. His illustrations catalyzed a paradigm shift, standardizing the scientific knowledge base and clarifying the existing misinterpretations and misrepresentations that had been propagated for years. As he and other anatomists began to collaborate with artists for the replication of such illustrations, the scientific community collectively scrutinized their knowledge base, refining the shared understanding of human anatomy that was brought to research, academia, and the treatment processes of the time. Interestingly, one month before Vesalius published this book, Nicolaus Copernicus published his book on planetary motion, overturning the medieval misconception that the earth was at the center of the universe. In 30 days, Vesalius and Copernicus reorganized what man knew about his composition and his place in the cosmos. 

Prior to Vesalius’ efforts, knowledge of human physiology was jailed in physicians’ brains, earned only by surgical exposure. The cooperation between scientists and craftsmen unlocked gates of knowledge, instilling a familiarity of the human body that could be applied to scientific inquiry and research for the betterment of human life. That said, while these models were two dimensional and conveyed some information, it was still challenging for medical students to gain a spatial awareness of the human body. 


The Conception of Life from Wax

With time, materials such as metal, clay, wood, and ivory were molded into three-dimensional models of skulls, ears, arms, and artificial bodies with movable parts, serving as an educational tool that could be examined by students. However, the materials were challenging to sculpt with, and early products lacked the degree of detail that was necessary for productive instruction. This all changed in the 15th century, when wax – unique for its adhesive structural integrity, moldability, and capacity to be embellished with hair and nails – became popularized for anatomical modeling. 

Artists oftentimes bought their supplies at the shops of apothecaries who dealt in colors and materials that the artists utilized for their work. Physicians, anatomists, and other medical partners could often be found at these same shops, and serendipitously, an interaction between the scientist and the artist was fertilized. There was a tremendous need to capture the intricate details of the body in a fashion that could then be delivered to medical students. Artists, adept at conceiving tangible objects from wax, met this demand by attending dissections and carefully crafting wax models with three-dimensional characteristics that mirrored human physiology. Working magic with their fingers, the artists of the era eventually became quite comfortable molding, pressing, and coloring in such a way that they could routinely conceive life from wax. 

Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Benvenuto Cellini, and countless others came together to meet the growing demand for these wax models. The artists eventually began carrying out dissections independently, many of whom became far more familiar with the physiological arrangement of the human body than anatomists, who focused more on viscera, blood vessels, and nerves. The line separating the scientist and the artist blurred, as the collective understanding of human anatomy grew in unison between the two. 

With time, wax modeling was propelled to exceptionally high levels when skilled artists such as Gaetano Julia Zumbo (1656-1701) began to collaborate with dissectors, using wax to build realistic figures with the appearance of post mortem decay. His models were ominously accurate, exuding the sense of death and demise that trailed cadaver dissections. Entering the 18th century, the fascination with wax modeling was further rejuvenated. In Florence, collections of dissectible wax models were prepared by Felice Fontana and Celemente Susini, who led the first studio for production. Their models portrayed cranial nerves and branches, and features of the external brain beautifully. A trend of life-sized female anatomical models, Anatomical Venuses, also emerged during this period, with statues prepared in an eerily realistic, fully dissectible fashion with glass eyes, real hair, and eyelashes. Underlying the ventral body wall of these figures were organs, each of which could be removed for further investigation. As mentioned above, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), one of the greatest painters of all time, was also a scientist and gifted neuroanatomist of this period. His inquisitiveness, scientific skillset, and neuroanatomical contributions earned him the title of the “Renaissance Man,” a scholar of insatiable curiosity and imagination. After quickly becoming a master of anatomical illustration, he began to dissect human corpses – having conducted over 100 dissections in Florence – and made over 240 detailed sketches, conveying unacknowledged information on the human skeleton, body mechanics, the heart, the vascular system, sex organs, and more. Unbeknownst to many, he was also the first to employ wax for neuroanatomical studies and performed an original experiment in which he defined the very shape of cerebral ventricles for the first time through wax. 

These anatomical models were three dimensional, tangible learning tools that could be studied on a much deeper level than the resources of the previous years. Beyond knowledge, physicians gained a spatial familiarity with the body, critical to surgeons and anatomists in a period where there was no image-guided support or surgical simulations to make sense of positioning. These models further challenged the anatomical knowledge of the time and set forth decades of learning as specialized versions were prepared. They became adjunct learning tools to surgical dissection and were prized possessions by both those with high status and the universities of the time. Without the wax sculptors of this era, the road to modern medicine may have been out of sight for decades until the educational processes could improve. 


Today, computerized scanning, interactive simulations, and image-guided surgeries provide physicians with absolute visual clarity on the physiological impairments facing each and every patient. In the prior days, treatment was much more experimental, with success dependent on the physician’s prior experience and the degree of understanding he could recollect from previous work. With the integration of anatomical sketches and wax models into medicine, the collective knowledge base was nurtured, and it provided physicians with improved anatomical understanding and spatial familiarity. 

A fact often forgotten is that information was fluid during this period. Scientific disciplines were jumbled without much distinction, and one didn’t need 5-10 years of training to make contributions to a field, as evidenced by the fact that the artists of the Renaissance had acquired a similar, if not greater, understanding of human physiology than some anatomists. After centuries of research, today’s knowledge base has grown tremendously for each discipline. It seems that even in a hyper-connected, digital world, the divide between each domain of work is more pronounced than ever before – we don’t ever imagine artists and scientists collaborating today. However, there is a valuable lesson underlying the synergistic relationship between science and art during the Renaissance. 

In each field, there may be blind spots where a worker operates at a suboptimal standard. One might be so familiar and habituated to functioning in an imperfect situation that he or she may not recognize areas for improvement. However, interdisciplinary interactions allow diversity in thought and perspective to be harnessed for the betterment of each and every circumstance. In the context of medicine, interdisciplinary interactions provide a means of disrupting the present workflow, and can positively shape patient outcomes, physician productivity, and resource utilization. Just as the artists of the Renaissance shaped medical education profoundly, we can forge tremendously impactful interactions between engineers, physicians, entrepreneurs, computer scientists, and others, and, ultimately, redesign medicine for the better. 


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