Via my friend Sylvia, here’s an old (2008) but interesting post arguing that over time, the quality of medical illustrations have declined. From Artemy Lebedev.


  1. #1 WcT
    January 28, 2010

    Interesting, but the third example isn’t really comprable to the first two – it’s a conceptual drawing trying to explain neurologic connections rather than a description of anatomy.

    Additionally, the example from the 90s isn’t what I’d describe as the top quality of medical drawing that exists in books from that time period. As a supplement in my anatomy class (in 2006) I used a comparatively old (late 90s) atlas that I would say far exceeded the quality of the image shown in that post.

    One might wonder if this instead shows something about survival qualities of good medical illustration over time!

  2. #2 Leon
    January 29, 2010

    I agree with WcT. Even though I am a big fan of Lebedev, I cringed when I first saw that article.

    I myself have a brand-new Atlas (Sobota) that could be considered art! To me, it is better looking than the positive example mentioned in the article. As for the negative example, I have seen about 6-7 different Atlases, but none of that quality!

    Again WcT hits the nail on the head when pointing out that the last drawing has nothing to do with the point. Apples and oranges!

  3. #3 Onkel Bob
    January 29, 2010

    Somewhat akin to the arguments among birders, are drawings better or photographs. (I prefer drawings.)

    While the paper version has possibly regressed, it remains- flat, static, and non-interactive, the digital format has taken off. When papers are submitted these days, it’s expected that your supplementary data contain a movie or two. Bitplane’s Imaris contains a feature to add Virtual Reality to any image created in it. Gives the viewer far more flexibility than breaking out the magnifying glass.

  4. #4 Jan-Maarten
    January 29, 2010

    The first drawing is from the Toldt atlas – from the Vienna school, that later also spawned the wonderfully illustrated, but controversial, Pernkopf atlas, featuring the work of the amazing artist Lepier. The Toldt atlas illustrations are woodcut, really great stuff. The Pernkopf atlas was partly created during WWII, and not all bodies used were willingly donated to science..

    So much for a little history.. what I actually wanted to say is I don’t agree with the ‘earlier is better’ sentiment, I can just as easily point to a lousily illustrated 19th century atlas (e.g. Magazijn der Onttleedkunde) as I can point to a great one from this century (say, The Human Nervous System by Nieuwenhuys et al.). It’s probably just that the better illustrated atlases seemed worth preserving.

    @Leon: Sobotta still features some great illustration. Look for the 16th edition though, it will blow you away!

  5. #5 Comrade PhysioProf
    January 30, 2010

    I agree. Hand-drawn medical illustration was an art, practiced by incredible talents like Frank Netter. Now medical textbook publishers outsource the shit to Adobe Illustrator farms overseas. It’s sad, but medical textbooks are all now typically over 1000 pages each, and competition demands that they contain multiple four-color illustrations per page. Unless medical students can be expected to pay $1000 per copy, which they obviously can’t, the only way to come in at around $150 per copy is to do away with the idea that the illustrations are art and to pay artists to draw them.

  6. #6 PalMD
    January 30, 2010

    I’ll never give up my Netter or my Grays. But I also like Janeway’s Immunology, with it’s schematic drawings of the components of the immune system.

  7. #7 Jan-Maarten
    January 30, 2010

    This blog post features great examples of contemporary anatomy illustration examples taken from an affordable, recent anatomical atlas (the Thieme atlas of Anatomy):
    The illustrations are all made in Photoshop & Illuatrator (I attended a lecture by the artist).

    I am no big fan of Netter; gaudy colors, and a lack of insight in 3D shape. Most anatomical illustrators I know feel that way, I guess medical practitioners are taken with it mostly because they don’t know any better (what with Ciba handing out Netter atlases as promotional material), and because Netter is a medical doctor turned artist, so he’s one of ‘us’ really.

  8. #8 Jessica Palmer
    January 30, 2010

    I actually like Netter a lot, Jan-Maarten. His style isn’t always realistic, but his illustrations (with some exceptions) are usually excellent teaching tools. I base that on my experience teaching students in my anatomy lab with a dissection on the table, and a Netter diagram alongside.

  9. #9 Jan-Maarten
    February 1, 2010

    Well, I’m glad you found some use for his work, I just want to point out there’s better illustration available. I much prefer to have a copy of Pernkopf’s atlas handy when dissecting.

    I am a trained medical artist myself, and have worked as such at a number of medical departments. The sad truth is that you don’t always get to develop new illustrations from scratch, but often are asked to adapt existing material (copyright issues anyone?), Netter included. To me, Netter usually lacks critical detail, and is often sloppy with visuospatially complex anatomy.

    His one redeeming quality I’d say is his attention to the clinical picture, these little illustrations that show a whole person in context, that’s quite unique and useful too!

  10. #10 Jessica Palmer
    February 1, 2010

    “I just want to point out there’s better illustration available.”

    I think whether a given illustration is “better” or “worse” is a highly subjective, context-driven determination on which reasonable people can disagree. But even without judging merit one way or the other, I’d think carefully about assigning Pernkopf’s controversial atlas in an undergraduate class, as long as some other illustrator’s atlas is perfectly adequate.

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