Copies of copies: Virtues and inaccuracies in medical art

18 March 2018

“But, mistake me not; I do not say, that no glass presents the true picture of an object: but only that magnifying, multiplying, and the like optic glasses, may, and do oftentimes present falsely the picture of an exterior object; and there, mistakes may easily be committed in taking copies from copies.” (1) - Margaret Cavendish

 

The most important way in which natural philosophy determined the emergence of the modern scientific approach that we still use today, is the introduction of the scientific method. This scientific method of experimenting can be broadly categorised into two approaches. First the development of designing controlled experiments to address pre-formed hypotheses. Secondly to devise conclusions from experimental results without pre-formed hypotheses. These approaches differ in aspects however retain the fundamental core of testing the natural world to formulate ideas and conclusions. This notably rejects the previously dominating Aristotelian philosophy of matter and form. Experimentation to this day is indispensable within all scientific disciplines.

In order to enable this new experimental design, the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century saw the birth of an emerging discipline within natural philosophy; the creation and use of scientific instruments. Scientific instruments can be defined as tools to: improve the senses, provide information when senses are not reliable, to be used as models or analogies of natural phenomena by reproducing conditions, and or create conditions which do not occur naturally. They also importantly give means to measure phenomena empirically.

 

Aided with a barrage of new enabling tools to fixate, dissect, stain, and magnify, scientists and physicians took to recording their observations in new found detail. Although many examples exist of exemplary medical art being produced by the naked eye from earlier polymaths (how could I not mention Da Vinci’s ground breaking anatomical sketches or Andreas Vesalius’s ‘De humani corporis fabrica’?), the discipline of medical art radically changed and grew in size and scientific importance from the eighteenth century onwards. The Wellcome Collection (2) has an enormous range of historical medical and scientific instruments, as well as significant artworks, on display at its museum in London, and has a comprehensive book which included many items for its archives in the book ‘The Art of Medicine’ (3).

 

Gross anatomy was still of huge importance, with physicians such as Joseph Maclise and Henry Vandyke Carter taking advantage of increased access to cadavers to provide anatomical drawings in exquisite detail. However, it was the advancement in microscopy and other magnifying instruments that propelled medical science into the new age of cellular then molecular biology. Robert Hooke’s Micrographia was revolutionary showing cells and bacteria for the first time, and Neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s neuroanatomy unveiled new structure-function relationships previously unknown within neurology.

 

 It’s unquestionable that the discipline of medical art has informed and inspired scientists and artists around the world. Once fulfilling the function to accurately convey information, the images are often readily manipulated to promote aesthetic indulgences. Medical art illustration is in fact still a recognised profession today, though the discipline is focused more on simple communication of existing complexity rather than explaining new discoveries. The main criticism, voiced first by Margaret Cavendish, is questioning the true accuracy of such work. Copies of copies can breed inherited mistakes in misinformation. This caution has generally been placed to one side over the years, though is worth bearing in mind. Indeed, if we were to delve into the deeper realms of philosophy one could argue can we really trust all we see, experience, and interpret at all? However, for the time being, we’ll satisfy ourselves with the knowledge that medical art, however in accurate, has successfully enhanced scientific discovery and understanding, leading to patient benefit.

 

  1. Observations upon experimental philosophy, - Margaret Cavendish, ISBN-10: 0521776759

  2. https://wellcomecollection.org/   

  3. The Art of Medicine - Over 2000 Years of Medicine in Our Lives, Emm Barnes, ISBN 9781907579134

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