Pictures Worth 100 Years

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media , October 13, 2011
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The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Department of Art as Applied to Medicine has marked 100 years turning out the nation’s leading medical illustrators. In the age of MRIs, CT scans, and other high-tech imaging, the role of the medical artist remains important. Students who graduate from the two-year program with a master’s degree in medical and biological illustration will be called on to interpret and explain to a wide and diverse audience the profound scientific and medical discoveries of our time. Gary Lees, director of the department since 1983, has seen the technology and science revolutionize medical illustration. Through it all, he says, the interpretive skill of the artist remains a constant.

On the makings of a good medical illustrator: We look at an individual who enjoys research and in their artwork they are captivated by telling a story. Much of what we teach is bringing art and science together and teaching the individual how to communicate science and research medicine to a variety of audiences. We look for a student who is capable of changing, because you must be able to advance with the technology.

On why medical art remains relevant: Lavish or beautiful images are not what we are doing. A good medical illustration must teach. You can sit down at a computer and it is not going to do the work for you. You have to tell it what kind of image you want to use that would best show and teach the scientific fact. If you get caught up in the technology, you might lose the essence of what you want to teach. The researcher might be wonderful at doing the research, but to communicate what he or she has just discovered takes a different skill.


On what motivates him: It’s the constant change that has made this an exciting career. We have young students coming in with a desire to communicate today on media that didn’t exist three or four years ago. I just turned 68 years old. I am getting tired. But each year we have six or so bright new students and their enthusiasm rubs off. Teaching is a wonderful way to stay young.

—John Commins
Reprint HLR1011-11

John Commins is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media.

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