Recently, on February 11th, 2020, I attended one of two NY Comics Symposium events for this semester– this first one showcasing the field of Medical and Scientific Illustration from PhD candidate Christopher Smith (a biological anthropologist well known for his art).
I found the presentation overall extremely fascinating and informative, as someone who has always been interested in science as well as art– Dr. Smith, Prof. Ben Katchor, and I discussed xenobiology, astrobiology, and astronomy illustration as possible fields I’d be interested in, which already had me excited for the Symposium event.
Coming into the presentation, I initially thought that the field of anatomy more or less started with Da Vinci and his famous diagrams of the human body/brain (and of a child inside a mother’s womb), only to be surprised that the history of anatomical illustration could be traced to the Islamic world and the early Greeks (Galen and Herophilos), and that the modern history of medical illustration started with luminaries like Max Brodel (who I’d never heard of prior).
As the presentation continued, I found Smith’s discussion regarding his background and how he got to his current position, as well as techniques he uses in medical illustration (like carbon dust/3D modeling) quite interesting, not to mention humbling (Smith didn’t know about medical illustration until his final year of college, and had to enroll at an art school after graduating to fulfill grad school requirements). His seahorse illustration was gorgeous, especially when modified through Photoshop and Illustrator (two programs I am proficient at using).
One quote that I found to be profound and inspiring by Dr. Smith was when he said that medical illustration is the practice of “drawing the invisible world rather than the visible world”. Since the field is so niche and so few people are involved in medical illustration (and even fewer people know about it), the potential for a lucrative and fulfilling career is ever-present, and was made know to me (although I wondered throughout the presentation how “creative” medical illustrators could be in their practice, even though the field does provide the opportunity for visual storytelling or the communication of scientific concepts).
Towards the middle and end of the Symposium, I found it genuinely shocking that in many cases medical illustration is/was actually more effective and more helpful in showing both patients and doctors information about the human body than CT and MRI scans. My interest was also piqued when Dr. Smith mentioned the growing field of Medical Humanities or Comics and Medicine (using comics, in other words, to communicate medical or scientific concepts, or to dramatize medicine– something I could get into!)
Probably the most surprising and jarring moment of the Symposium Event that I experienced was when I went up to talk to Dr. Smith after the presentation (which ended early), and asked him how much math he used as a medical illustrator on a daily basis. To my bewilderment, Dr. Smith told me he barely used math in his career at all, and all he had to take in college was basic biology courses and art (with the highest level science course being chemistry). He also apparently did not like mathematics or chemistry too much when young, just like me (and I confessed to him that I originally intended to major in Biology in college, only to grow discouraged by my lackluster performance in– and hatred for– math and chemistry, and by my fear of advanced math and chemistry courses in college for a Bio major, such as Calculus or Organic Chem).
I’ve considered Medical Illustration as a potential career path at times, only to then drop the idea due to my perception of the field lacking creativity (valuing technical proficiency over imagination), and due to my aversion towards college-level science and mathematics. Hearing Dr. Smith demystify the field for me has made me a little more hopeful– especially because the field is essentially an untapped gold mine of potential, and can lead me towards a career that I can at least enjoy, and make a substantial amount of money from.