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The anatomy of art & science

When Hannah MacKenzie, Medicine Class of 2016, saw an archived edition of Andreas Vesalius’ book “On the fabric of the human body” published in 1543, it struck a chord with her in more than one way. The arts-minded medical student not only saw the beauty in Vesalius’ anatomical illustrations, she also saw an opportunity to understand and learn about the human body in a different way.

Her research on anatomical knowledge transfer, which earned her the 2014 Rowntree Prize in Medical History, is an example of why understanding the history of medicine is such an important component of medical education.

“My research helped me understand how we as doctors and physicians, who have so much knowledge about the minute details of the human body, can explain the patient’s body to them in a way that is going to make sense to them and in a way that they are actually going to relate to,” she said.

Using Vesalius’ textbook and the more recent Body Worlds exhibit as examples, MacKenzie set out to show how context can influence our ability to connect with and understand anatomy and the human body.  

In traditional anatomy education, the human body is shown in the classic anatomical position – standing upright, feet apart, palms facing forward – a position that MacKenzie says is hard to relate to because people rarely  stand that way in everyday life.  

Unlike traditional anatomy, both Vesalius’ book and the Body Worlds exhibit show the human body – and all its bones, vessels and muscles – in relatable poses and surroundings.

One of Vesalius’ most notable illustrations is the ‘grieving skeleton;’ it shows all the structure of the body’s bones and joints, but it is shown in a grieving pose with its head hung forward into its hands, and it stands on a rocky countryside rather than on a blank background. Similarly, the Body World exhibit, which MacKenzie was also very moved by, shows anatomical specimens in action.

“People react so differently to that very familiar, very dynamic posing of the human body,” she said. “By putting the human body in this familiar setting, you remove the strangeness of what you are looking at, which allows you to focus more on the actual content. It makes the eye and the mind more comfortable with it which allows you to form a better connection with what you’re seeing.”

In this way MacKenzie believes that the blending of arts and science aids in making each discipline even stronger. Having earned a combined Bachelor of Arts and Science degree herself she sees the value in making sure the two work in parallel.

“It’s fascinating to me that we can take these lessons from history and from art, and we can make these connections and then apply them in a way that’s useful in medicine today,” she said.