The artistic technique that changed medical and scientific illustration

Black and white illustrations from old medical textbooks have a very distinct style. Smooth shading effects show as much of a tissue’s texture as you need to see to be able to understand the shape and detail of an organ. Many of these images were created using a technique developed in the early 20th century by medical illustrator Max Brödel.

Brödel studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Leipzig, Germany in the 1880s. His first job as a medical illustrator was for physiologist Carl Ludwig, who hired Brodel draw anatomical pictures. In 1894 Brödel moved to the United States where he had accepted a job at Johns Hopkins University. He created hundreds of illustrations for the medical school here, including illustrations for Howard Kelly’s textbook. Operative gynecology.

One of the challenges of medical and scientific illustration is knowing how much detail to show. Often a part of the image that shows a feature of interest will be very detailed, while the rest of the image shows only a rough indication of an organ’s shape and shading. Brödel was really good at knowing when to focus on the details and when to show the big picture. He would study a sample at different levels of magnification under a microscope to really understand what it looked like, but in drawing he focused on the features that were important.

It’s the kind of style you’ll still often find in medical and scientific textbooks. It’s as realistic as a photo would be, but unlike a photo, illustrations will be selective in which parts of the image are shown in more or less detail to help people understand the features of anatomy. Photography cannot do that. That’s why, even in the age of affordable high-tech digital imaging, there’s still a demand for medical illustrators, many of whom use the techniques and styles that Brödel first explored more than a century ago. a hundred years old.

Next month will mark the 75th anniversary of the annual meeting of the Association of Medical Illustrators, which inspired four neurosurgeons to publish a letter in the newspaper, highlighting Brödel’s influence on the pitch. In their letter, they write, “through scrupulous study of his objects and methodical choice of technique, Brödel was able to deftly blend tissue realism with cross-sectional anatomy, while maintaining topographical accuracy”.

The technique they were referring to was Brödel’s “carbon dust” technique. He was the first to use it as a method to create realistic representations of human tissue, and it is still used today for medical and scientific illustration. This is one of the techniques students learn in science illustration programs. In fact, it was Brödel who founded the first department dedicated to medical illustration at Johns Hopkins in 1911.

The principle of the carbon dust technique is simple and uses only common art supplies. Carbon dust is scraped off with a pencil, then applied to paper with a brush. Essentially painting with pencil dust, science illustrators are able to apply detailed shadows and add highlights with an eraser. The video below, by nature illustrator John Megahan, shows how it’s done.

Scientists and doctors relied on artists to help them convey what they discovered or what they wanted to teach their students. But because pictures are generally considered informative diagrams rather than art, it’s easy to overlook artists. Like the background of their own carbon dust artwork, the artists are not in focus, but absolutely necessary to get a complete picture.