2.7 Advances in imaging technologies

The purpose of this exercise was to examine how the work of a selected number of science illustrators has been impacted by the introduction of new imaging techniques.

Key words from the brief:

  • Visit the gallery [The Wellcome Trust] or website or do your own research
  • Find examples of illustrators who have adapted their image-making approach to accommodate advances in imaging technologies
  • Looking at illustrators who brought new technologies into their work at a particular point in time, or find contemporary examples of illustrators working with new technologies.

  • How does this compare with more traditional image-making approaches?

Illustrator analysis

After visiting the Wellcome Collection Reading Room and online catalogue I selected three science illustrators to examine in this exercise, either because they incorporated new imaging technologies into their work or because they reacted in some way to the introduction of new technologies.

Beatrix Potter

The Tales of Peter Rabbit (Potter, 1902) and the other children’s books in this series are some of my childhood favourites so I was intrigued to find out that as well as writing and illustrating children’s books, Beatrix Potter (1886 to 1943) was also a keen botanist.

At a time where it was almost impossible for a women to get a formal education, she pursued her interest with scientific rigor and determination. She had a broad interest in the natural sciences and during her early career focused on mycology (the branch of biology concerned with the study of fungi). This led her to illustrate fungus spores magnified using a microscope.


An online article on the website brainpickings provides context for a women working in this field at the time: “Potter’s scientific work was exceptional in that she deliberately tried to penetrate the very institutions that dismissed women’s scientific labor solely on the basis of gender” (Popova).

In 1895 she developed a theory of fungal spore germination and published a number of papers that included her meticulous illustrations. Her scientific theory never got the recognition it deserved because of the male chauvinist attitude of the Linnean Society that dismissed her work before it was even peer reviewed. A century later the Linnean Society issued an apology for its historic sexism.

Beatrix Potter fungi
Fig 1 – Flammulina velutipes (Armitt Museum and Library)

In 1967 mycologist W.P.K. Findlay included many of Potter’s fungus illustrations in his book Wayside & Woodland Fungi.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Santiago Ramón y Cajal was a neuroscientist and pathologist with an interest in central nervous system.

As a child he was very artistic but this was not supported by his father who had him apprenticed as a barber and then a cobbler. His father was an anatomy teacher the the University of Zaragoza and wanted him to take up a career in medicine, which he eventually did.

After serving for a short period as a medical officer in the Spanish Army he returned to Spain to take up a number of university teaching roles, becoming Professor in Anatomy in the University of Valencia in 1883. It was here that he started studying the microbiology of cells and cell tissues.

A breakthrough moment in his career was when he learned about Golgi’s method, a process that uses potassium dichromate and silver nitrate to stain neurons a dark colour, enabling them to be studied under a microscope. Without this staining process, study of these densely packed neurons would not be possible. He improved the method and started to focus his attention on the central nervous system. It was during this period that he made extensive illustrations and drawings.

He published numerous books and papers and his ground-breaking research won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1909.

An art review in the New York Times for an exhibition of his work sums up his method: “In his research, Cajal’s two tools were the most powerful microscope he could find and one of the oldest art techniques known to mankind: drawing, for which he had great talent”. (Smith, 2018)

Santiago Ramón y Cajal is an example of where art and science work hand-in-hand to produce ground breaking research and numerous discoveries in an important and emerging area of science that was otherwise inaccessible using other techniques.

Cajal - Glial cells
Fig 2 –

Henry Vandyke Carter

The work of the third illustrator is interesting because it was a reaction to the introduction of new imaging technologies, in this case the growing use of photography during the middle of the 19th Century. Rather than embracing the new technology it resulted in a realisation of the importance of traditional image making techniques.

From the middle of the 19th Century, European doctors were using photography to record patient case histories. By the 1890s new production techniques meant that photographs could be mass produced and distributed in books and medical journals. Even though a photograph offered the potential of a neutral objective view of a subject, this notion was strongly challenged. Simply taking a photograph of a medical subject was not enough. “The eyes of the viewer had to be guided, and this could not be done without some degree of human intervention” (Barnett).

It is for this reason that the most influential 19th Century texts on human anatomy uses images created using woodcut and not photographs.

Gray’s Anatomy (1858) was written by Henry Gray and illustrated by the artist-surgeon Henry Vandyke Carter.

Henry Vandyke Carter (1831 to 1897) was born in Hull and was the son of the painter Henry Barlow Carter. He became a medical student in 1853 and during that time did some some illustrations for an article that was published in the Lancet. This led to a commission for further work that eventually resulted in his collaboration with Henry Gray on a fully illustrated textbook for students. Gray’s Anatomy was published in London in 1858 contained 363 woodcuts from Carter’s original drawings.

So in an age where the new and exciting technology of photography was being introduced, the reaction, at least for the production of reference medical textbooks was to fall back on more traditional image making techniques. This recognised that whilst a medical subject must be accurately represented, it is the visual language, in the case of Gray’s Anatomy, the visual language employed by Carter in his illustrations, that plays a large part in what is being communicated.

Henry Vandyke Carter - Grays
Fig 3 – 189-Surgical Anatomy of the Arteries of the neck. Right side

How do the methods employed by these illustrators compare with more traditional image making processes?

All three illustrators used traditional methods, essentially drawing and/or painting, to create images of their subjects. They all lived during the late 19th Century in Europe so were exposed to the same prevailing trends in medical developments, albeit that the research of Cajal was actually leading the creation of new knowledge in neuroscience.

The emerging imaging techniques allowed them to observe their subjects at new and previously impossible levels of detail.

Whilst the image making techniques were traditional, the visual language used to describe these new worlds had to be developed and refined. The work of an illustrator is to provide visual solutions that best meet the needs of an audience. The illustration of nerve cells in Figure 2 is a good example of this, where Cajal is having to capture and communicate a subject that was, until that point, inaccessible. During the drawing process he had to make visual choices, selecting only certain elements from the mass of information under the microscope that would lead the viewer to a clear understanding.

My conclusion is that whilst media and processes may change, illustrators throughout the ages have always used the same underlying creative tools and techniques to make images that tell a story or communicate a point of view.

This is particularly true of the early 21st Century where the digital revolution is not only radically changing the tools-of-the-trade, but also opening up a plethora of new opportunities for illustrators to share, distribute and publish work.


Barnett, Richard The sick rose. Thames & Hudson

Smith, Roberta (2018) A Deep Dive Into the Brain, Hand-Drawn by the Father of Neuroscience At: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/18/arts/design/brain-neuroscience-santiago-ramon-y-cajal-grey-gallery.html (Accessed on 22.08.19)

Popova, Maria Beatrix Potter, Mycologist: The Beloved Children’s Book Author’s Little-Known Scientific Studies and Illustrations of Mushrooms At: https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/07/28/beatrix-potter-a-life-in-nature-botany-mycology-fungi/ (Accessed on 22.08.19)

List of illustrations

Figure 1 – Potter, Beatrix Flammulina velutipes (Armitt Museum and Library) At: https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/07/28/beatrix-potter-a-life-in-nature-botany-mycology-fungi/ (Accessed on 20.08.19)

Figure 2 – Ramón y Cajal, Santiago (1904)

Figure 3 – Carter, Henry Vandyke 189-Surgical Anatomy of the Arteries of the neck. Right side At: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/zd5snwaq (Accessed on 21.08.19)



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