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The Art in Healing: Exploring the Interconnected Nature of Art and Medicine


The anatomy theatre at Leiden University, early 17th century. Wellcome Collection, CC-BY

Amphitheatres, featuring tiered seating encircling the central stage, facilitate an optimal viewing experience of the entertainment held within. This architectural design has been notable throughout history, serving as venues for dramatic performances, orchestral concerts, sports events, and even surgical procedures in the late 16th century.


In pursuit of a greater understanding of human anatomy, Italian artists, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, were known to undertake public dissections [1]. Aiming to illustrate the body with accuracy and precision, they meticulously analyzed bone structure, muscles, nerves and vessels to capture the intricacies of the human form. 


Artists were not alone in their exploration of anatomy. They worked alongside physicians in a nearly symbiotic relationship [2]. Artists observed or conducted dissections, while physicians contracted them for detailed illustrations. 


In 1543, leveraging insights from autopsies and dissections, physician Andreas Vesalius published the first modern book of anatomy, De humani corporis fabrica (On The Fabric of the Human Body). He worked closely with an apprentice of Titian, a famous Renaissance painter, to create woodblocks of his drawings, allowing for printing in mass volumes [3]. The final textbook, featuring over 270 illustrations, not only transformed the study of anatomy but also revolutionized the entire field of surgery and medicine.


Over time, the observation of dissections evolved into a public affair—with a growing audience eager to witness, for themselves, the splendours of the human form. This surge in curiosity ultimately led to the coining of the term "autopsy," originating from the Greek phrase meaning "to see with one’s own eyes" [4].


One particularly impactful dissection was observed in 1803 by Mary Shelley. She had witnessed a physician attempt to reanimate a corpse through the use of electricity [1]. This vivid demonstration, marked by muscle convulsions and facial contusions, served as the inspiration for her iconic novel, Frankenstein.


While appearing as a cautionary tale of scientific innovation and unchecked ambition, Frankenstein delves into themes far deeper than initially apparent [5]. Through the utilization of various perspectives in her narration, Shelley delicately guides the reader through an exploration of consequences—from abandonment to negligence and social alienation. 


The manner in which literature, such as Frankenstein, enables shifts in perspective, viewing the same story from diverse angles, holds a particular relevance within the field of medicine. In order to recognize the manifestations of disease, medical practitioners must adopt alternative perspectives. Drawing from patients' histories, current complaints, laboratory findings, and medical imaging, physicians must approach each case with a sense of openness, tolerance for uncertainty, and passion for exploration and understanding.


And so it is essential that we engage in the practice of perspective-taking, whether that be a physical change of subject and viewpoint, reminiscent of Renaissance art, or immersing oneself in new life experiences through the lens of literature. These alterations of perspective ultimately enhance our cognitive plasticity in pursuit of something greater. It is with hope that physicians continue to use the realm of the arts to develop creative thinking, innovative problem-solving techniques, effective communication, and an overall appreciation for differences within our society.


 

References


  1. The original drama of Operating Theatres [Internet]. [cited 2024 Mar 5]. Available from: https://wellcomecollection.org/articles/Ye6WHxAAACMAXTxz

  2. Magazine S. The Anatomy of Renaissance Art [Internet]. Smithsonian Institution; 2010 [cited 2024 Mar 5]. Available from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-anatomy-of-renaissance-art-36887285/

  3. Erjavic BN, 2018-01-10 P, Erjavic, Arizona State University. School of Life Sciences. Center for Biology and Society. Embryo Project Encyclopedia., Monday. Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) [Internet]. [cited 2024 Mar 5]. Available from: https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/andreas-vesalius-1514-1564

  4. The history of anatomy - from the beginnings to the 20th century [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2024 Mar 5]. Available from: https://bodyworlds.com/about/history-of-anatomy/ 

  5. Shelley M. Frankenstein. London, England: Penguin Classics; 2012.

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