The Art of Medicine: Over 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination

Image of The Art of Medicine: Over 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination
Release Date: 
February 1, 2012
Publisher/Imprint: 
University of Chicago Press
Pages: 
256
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“With The Art of Medicine: Over 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination on your lap, a faraway gallery is made available—a gallery in which the past and the current worlds appear, both filtered through the art of medicine.”

After thoroughly combing the massive art collection of Sir Henry Wellcome, one in which objects and artwork spanning 2,000 years are preserved, a fraction—only 400—were selected for inclusion in The Art of Medicine: Over 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination.

Much like the goal of pharmaceutical entrepreneur Sir Wellcome—which was to help society “understand and engage with science”—the goal of authors Julie Anderson, Emm Barnes, and Emma Shackleton is to provide us with “a fascinating visual insight into our knowledge of the human body and mind, and how both have been treated with medicine . . .” and to see what it is “to be human in sickness and health.”

If pictures really were worth a thousand words, the selections contained here would equate to volumes of writings—serious, graphic novel, humorous, mysterious, fear-riddled, and awe-inspired.

What the authors have provided in the text are brief, well-constructed descriptions of medicine and history and explanations of the art in those contexts. They don’t theorize, but allow the art to influence the reader with its wide-ranging styles and varied usage of media by both ancient and modern peoples.

Connections are drawn when appropriate to help the reader gain perspective. Along with the text an index, a bibliography, and a list of further resources, including online references, are included. An index of images is provided as well—most useful when you can’t get an image out your mind, and you simply must learn more about it.

Many areas are covered in The Art of Medicine: Over 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination; but its mapping of the human body, disease, and its treatment along with how fear has entered into the history of medicine pervades the book—and wonderfully so.

As Luke Jerram (a glass artist specializing in virology) states: “. . . there’s a fascinating tension between something that is very beautiful but which is also dangerous and is having a terrible impact on humanity.”

One of the most fascinating themes throughout the book centers on anatomy. There are maps of the human body drawn on sculptures, maps of brains and heads—depicting functionality, maps of yin and yang, anatomy man, nerve man, wound man, ancient maps of blood circulation, and also astrology and acupuncture charts.

William Hunter’s 1774 obstetrical atlas, with commissioned artwork by Jan van Rymsdyck, is only one of many examples of art that must have been alarming when it was first published. Society at that time did not discuss pregnancy, and the illustrations of fetuses in the womb bordered on scandalous.

Jacob Andreas Fridrich’s dissected hearts in his scientific illustrations of the Bible are sensational as well. Many lesser known artists, as opposed to Leonardo da Vinci, created anatomical art, and many countries and cultures had their own anatomical texts and models, as the authors show us.

Also shown is how disease, the “healers,” and disease treatments are represented in different cultures and nations (African, Asian, Persian, Tibetan, and Western to name only a few), but the political and social climates in which the artworks erupt make for the most lively reading and viewing.

The characterization of surgeons and other medicine providers (in the form of donkeys, leeches, quacks, theater troupe members, apothecaries, and dentists) illustrated and caricatured by various artists, many unknown to some will make you shake your head, laugh, and potentially need something to calm your stomach. William Hogarth (of both Rake’s and A Harlot’s Progress), Francisco José de Goya, Robert and George Cruikshanks, James Gillray (known for caricatures of smallpox vaccinators during the time of Edward Jenner), and Thomas Rowlandson use vulgarity, politics, and tongue-in-cheek humor to convey their thoughts on doctors, patients, mental illness, and politicians of their time.

Sympathy for patients and a more humane depiction of mental illness, and respect for doctors and nurses are also included in the diverse selections. Drawings of the mentally ill by Byrom Bramwell and Sir Charles Bell will pull at your heart, for they emphasize physiognomy—the medical study of facial expressions to illuminate problems with personality. The art conveys the patient’s anguish.

Respect for surgery and surgeons is shown in multiple war-related artworks, and the work of Ambroise Paré (the surgeon credited with developing the method for tying off vessels during amputation) is lauded by the fine art of Ernest Board. This is significant as much artwork shows the horror of amputation, not the beauty of it when done well.
Certainly, the respectful treatment and awe of medicine seen in these works provides great counterbalance to other examinations of the topic often bordering on caricatures.

When we think about how medicine fits into our lives, the reader will well agree that “. . . By looking at the art that depicts medicine in varying places and times, we gain insight into the breadth of practices and perceptions of them. As forms of visual expression, whether the art has been made for ritual instruction, iconographic purposes, or as social comment, the representations not only highlight the diversity, but also the similarities, of the profession and its place in our lives.”

With The Art of Medicine: Over 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination on your lap, a faraway gallery is made available—a gallery in which the past and the current worlds appear, both filtered through the art of medicine.