The Anatomy Lesson: The Synergy of Art and Medicine
Updated: Mar 16
By Lowenna Renals, Merton College
The feeling of being haunted by the ubiquitous presence of Rembrandt's painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp can be considered a quintessential experience of the Oxford medicine degree. This can often feel like an outdated tribute to a bygone era of clinical practice, but art and medicine have always had important roles in influencing both each other and society. From the cue cards we revise from, to the most complex ethical dilemmas, appreciating this symbiotic relationship gives us the opportunity to understand more about the experiences of patients, and what it means to be a doctor.
Illustrations of the human body have played an essential role in clinical education to help generations of doctors understand the body. Although digital technology has usurped this to some extent, art is an important record of medical knowledge. For example, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo have provided valuable scientific insights as well as their diagrams, with the former providing the first recorded descriptions of valve function and the four chambers of the heart in Western literature. More recently, Dr Gunther von Hagens' BodyWorlds exhibit has attracted an estimated 50 million visitors since the creation of the first plastinated body, allowing the public and students to appreciate body systems in a much more interactive manner.
As well as recording the body in health, art has also had important roles in reflecting disease; detailed images of the maladies of painted subjects are often more useful in modern identification of the illness than scientific records at the time. For example, a figure in Wright's 1768 An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump can now be identified as suffering from dermatomyositis by the characteristic appearance of Gottron's papules, despite the earliest recorded descriptions of the condition dating from 1891.
Although art can be used as objective references to anatomy, the subjective perception of real and illustrated figures has been greatly influenced by medicine. The celebration of high BMI bodies can be seen as early as the statue of Venus of Willendorf around 20,000 - 30,000 years BC, and fat continued to be perceived as the ‘body beautiful’ up until relatively recently. This was altered drastically in the late 20th century, as metabolic and cardiovascular diseases associated with high BMI superseded ill health from starvation. The concerns expressed by medics on the dangers of a high calorie diet majorly contributed to a drastic alteration in perception of overweight figures in art as no longer the 'ideal'. Although raising awareness of this issue is justified to some extent, much of the blame has been placed on individuals, opposed to the systemic problems responsible for the rise in BMI in Western society. This has been further exacerbated by medical fatphobia, for example a study in which over one third of students attending Wake Forest School of Medicine exhibited significant anti-fat bias, and a certain BBC TV doctor recommending dangerous fad diets as low as 800 calories a day. The effects of this stigma on individuals is reflected in works such as I Cannot Help the Way I Feel by John Isaacs, which challenges viewers to consider the consequences of alienation by medicine and society on identity and self-esteem.
Further criticisms of medical practice can be seen in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In awe of Galvani and Galvani's experiments using electricity to trigger muscle contraction in dead tissue, Shelley's 'modern Prometheus' must face the terrible consequences of playing God and pushing the boundaries of natural order. More than two centuries later, multiple advancements in medical science can be seen as Frankensteinian: gene therapies, artificial intelligence, and brain-machine interfaces all pose serious risk of unforeseen consequences to human health and society, despite their potential benefits. The concerns of designer babies and medical eugenics is further explored in Huxley's Brave New World, a dystopian vision exploring the horrific potential of weaponising medical science. Many critics have argued that some of Huxley's worst fears have been realised in modern Western society, with 'social iatrogenesis' causing many people to become increasingly reliant on treatments for conditions previously considered a normal aspect of health. The description of the mind-numbing effects of 'soma', and the argument that modern medicine has 'made more people sick than it heals' forces clinicians to consider their influence on patients' lives, and the point at which therapeutic intervention becomes more deleterious than beneficial.
Medicine has provided artists with a rich source of inspiration and study for centuries. However, the role of art in medicine has often been underestimated. From providing the images we use to learn, to offering insights into the experiences of the patients we treat, artists give doctors and medical students the opportunity to reflect on the nature of medicine and its impact on society. A greater appreciation of issues such as the consequences of fatphobia, the potential iatrogenic effects of therapies, and the problems associated with increasingly unobtainable standards of 'health' can help us better understand and support patients, and learn the true art of medicine.
Edition: 69 (2020-2021)
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