A Body of Work Medicine: Revered Hopkins illustrator Leon Schlossberg artfully maps a course for surgeons to follow. If you're facing an operation, you'll be glad he has.

March 12, 1997|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Leon Schlossberg is Baltimore's great cartographer of the human body, mapmaker of the inner woman and the anatomical man.

He's painted body parts even Madonna has left unexposed. He's charted the island of Langerhans, mapped the ligament of Treitz, explored the space of Retzius, illuminated the crypts of Lieberkuhn, drawn the valve of Houston.

He accompanied Dr. Alfred Blalock on his pioneer journeys into the heart with his "blue-baby" operations, tracked Dr. Patrick Walsh through the intricacies of the neural jungle around the prostate, recorded Dr. Robert Jeffs' pediatric reconstructions, sketched Dr. Bruce Reitz's removal of kidney tumors, followed Dr. Vincent D. Gott's route along the bypasses of the heart.

All in the name of the art -- and science -- of medical illustration, a field in which Schlossberg, associate professor in Johns Hopkins' Art As Applied to Medicine Department, has few peers.

He is among the most revered and respected medical illustrators in the United States, and his reputation is international. His most famous work is the Johns Hopkins Atlas of Human Functional Anatomy, which is just going into its fourth printing since 1975, with 200,000 copies sold.

A square, squat man with searching eyes, thick hands and supple fingers, Schlossberg is a bit coy about his age. "I'm past retirement age," he says, in a considerable understatement. But after 60 years or so on the job, he still goes to his office nearly every day, to practice what he also still teaches.

"In my opinion," he says, "there is static anatomy and there is functional anatomy. This is functional anatomy -- it's a story."

Schlossberg makes it sound like a simple undertaking.

"I go in the operating room with a pad, 8-by-10, and I sketch," he explains.

He peers over the shoulder of the surgeon who is repairing a diseased heart valve or shunting past an aneurysm or making the tiny incisions for the laparoscope. He numbers the sketches as the operation proceeds and, yes, he sometimes asks the surgeon to hold up a minute so he can get a better look.

To a layman, Schlossberg's operating room sketches have the vague look of a soft pencil doodle, a few lines, some dots, some scribbled letters that identify the organs and mark where the scalpel cuts.

"You don't have time to write them out," he says. "These few lines are meaningful to me."

He takes his sketches back to his studio-office among the surgeons on the sixth floor of the Blalock Building at Hopkins hospital and completes his illustration. They're drawn with a special carbon dust pencil on his own custom-made, calcium-coated paper, or in pen and ink, or painted in brilliant watercolors.

In the end, his drawings and paintings are small masterpieces of realism, essential to illustration of the surgeon's technique.

During his half-century-plus at Hopkins, Schlossberg has observed hundreds of operations in all the surgical specialties. He's been at the elbow of doctors for a generation of exciting breakthrough surgery. He's drawn virtually the whole history of open-heart and bypass surgery. He's documented the first laparoscopic procedure, when the fiber-optic-guided microsurgery was introduced.

"He never stops learning," says Anne R. Altemus, a National Institutes of Health illustrator taught by Schlossberg. "He never stops working. He still draws. He still goes to surgery. He's still studying surgery."

Altemus, who wrote an affectionate appreciation when her mentor was presented with the 1990 Lifetime Achievement Award by the Association of Medical Illustrators, thinks Schlossberg knows as much anatomy as most surgeons, and more than many.

His drawings, from which doctors learn and verify technique, reflect this knowledge, Altemus says. "They're anatomically correct. They're surgically accurate. And they are artistically beautiful."

"How can you explain to the viewer what went on [in surgery] without these pictures?" Schlossberg asks. An important question indeed, if the viewer is another surgeon contemplating the same operation on you.

Great teacher

The illustrator's work reflects the ideas and the teachings of his mentor, Max Broedel, whom Schlossberg revered almost to the point of adoration.

"Max Broedel was the greatest medical illustrator ever," he says. "And he was the greatest teacher."

An exhibition of Broedel's work will open at the Walters Art Gallery April 5 and run through the national convention of the Association of Medical Illustrators which meets July 24 to 27 at the Omni Hotel.

Howard A. Kelly, the gynecologist who was the last of the "Big Four" doctors who founded the Hopkins medical school, brought Broedel to Baltimore from Leipzig, Germany, basically to illustrate his operations. Broedel established the Department of Art As Applied to Medicine -- the world's first -- in 1911, and in his 40 years at Hopkins revolutionized modern medical illustration.

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