Where medical masterpieces are made

Art As Applied to Medicine, John Hopkins' prestigious illustration program, celebrates its hundredth year

  • Eo Trueblood works on a 3D project mapping skin texture on a 3D modeling of a face.
Eo Trueblood works on a 3D project mapping skin texture on a 3D… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
July 15, 2011|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

As an oil painter in college, Elizabeth Cook expected to pursue the life of the typical aspiring American artist: get an advanced degree, move to a big city, embark on a future of creative struggle.

Then she attended an exclusive arts workshop in New York.

"Here I was, right in the center of the contemporary art world, and I saw that in addition to talent, you had to have a big ego and be comfortable selling yourself," says Cook, a Louisiana native and a 2008 summa cum laude graduate of Louisiana State University. "I needed something more down to earth and predictable."

So she reached out to another part of herself.

Cook, who happened to have excelled in biology in high school, recalled something about a tiny master's program in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Known as the Department of Art as Applied to Medicine, it has been training students in the esoteric art of medical illustration since the early 20th century.

"I sat down to research it online, and the place emanated this wonderful sense of tradition," she says. "I saw I could merge my love of art with my passion for science." She's now one of 12 students enrolled in a department that has been defining the field since 1911.

Cook will be among those on hand Wednesday as the program celebrates its 100th birthday. Doctors, scholars and friends from around the world will attend a daylong symposium on campus, hearing talks on developments in the field, perusing an exhibit of works by the program's 432 graduates, even sampling a custom beer known as "Brodel Brew."

The department's founder and spiritual touchstone, Max Brodel, a German-born artist and polymath, helped concoct the recipe during Prohibition.

"He was the father of medical illustration," says Gary Lees, the department's fourth chairman. "He also said he had fun every day of his life."

As the centennial looms, that as much as anything is the tradition to which Cook and her colleagues belong. She's honored to be part of history — but happier still just to have found a place that values both the artistic and the scientific in life. "I'm having the time of my life," she says.

A new field

If you've seen a placard showing the effects of smoking on the lungs, a diagram of the intestines or a 3-D representation of a protein string, you've seen the work of medical illustrators.

Their media have changed with the centuries, but their main goal has not: making visible what skin, blood, and layers of tissue conceal.

"Brodel taught that the medical illustrator should be like the poet or the journalist," says Lees, who became director in 1983. "A drawing can be lavish and beautiful, but if it's a good medical illustration, it also teaches."

Artists have been trying to depict human anatomy and the pathways of disease since the third century B.C. Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci, who observed dissections, drew muscle and bone more accurately. During the 1500s, the anatomist Andreas Vesalius hired artists to create an atlas of the body.

But the ancient Greeks never saw internal organs, da Vinci's drawings weren't published for 300 years and Vesalius' artists had no science background. It wasn't until the 1890s that anyone even tried to make medical illustration a teaching tool. It happened in Baltimore.

Max Brodel (pronounced "BROY-del") came by his ideas early. When he was a boy, his parents encouraged him to study piano, and he excelled at it. But he gained fame at a Leipzig art school for charcoal and watercolor works that showed his subjects with striking exactitude.

"Every student, in addition to acquiring the skills that established him as a creator of 'fine arts,' also [had to] learn a utilitarian technique that would [always] enable him … to earn a living," wrote authors Ranice W. Crosby and John Cody in their 1991 book, "Max Brodel: The Man Who Put Art Into Medicine."

In 1888, Brodel, then 18, was doing drawings for a physiologist when his art came to the attention of Franklin Paine Mall, an anatomist visiting Germany from Hopkins. Mall sold Brodel on the idea of moving to Baltimore to work at the Hopkins medical school, set to open in 1893. By 1894, he was illustrating the research of its top doctors.

He summoned his talents to create a new field. Brodel learned so much anatomy the physicians let him write chapters in their textbooks. He pioneered art methods, creating transparent layers to reveal structures beneath; drawing "exploded" views of organs and offering cross-sectional and lengthwise perspectives.

"Brodel saw the artist not as a hired hand but as a collaborator with physicians, an equal partner," says Jennifer Fairman, a 1996 graduate who is now an assistant professor in the program.

He also took a scalpel to the past.

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