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You’ve probably heard of Grey’s Anatomy, but did you know that the TV show’s title was inspired by a famous medical textbook of the same name? (OK, one letter off.) Gray’s Anatomy was first published in 1858 and is currently in its 42nd edition. It’s an essential reference book for medical students and contains hundreds of anatomical illustrations drawn from the authors’ studies of dissected bodies. Want to know more about the fascinating art and science of medical illustration, including medical illustrator jobs and how to get a medical illustration education? Read on.

What Is Medical Illustration?

foot illustration
Source: Unsplash
Color printing changed the face of medical drawing in the 19th century.

Medical illustration is a form of illustration that combines scientific knowledge and technical artistic skill. Illustrators depict the human body, muscles, skeletons and bones, blood vessels and arteries, cells, medical conditions, and other relevant anatomical features in an illustrated form. Medical illustrations are included in textbooks or other educational tools, hospital documents, advertising and marketing materials, patient support documents, and many other places.  

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History of Medical Illustration

Nowadays it’s easy to take for granted that we (OK, doctors!) know what the human body looks like, inside and out. This wasn’t always the case. At certain times in history and among some cultures, dissecting human bodies has been taboo, illegal, or considered heretical. Without examining human bodies, outside and in, an accurate understanding of anatomy—and hence medical illustrations—was simply not possible.

Early medical illustrations were made and used in ancient Greece as early as the 4th century BCE. As understandings of the way the body and pathologies worked were different then, these illustrations aren’t necessarily accurate in a modern medical sense.

Da Vinci

davinci
Source: PIxabay
Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man is an early illustration.

Interest in and understandings of human anatomy grew during the Renaissance in Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries. The development of mathematically accurate perspective in art forever changed art, illustration, and the way human figures were depicted. 

Quintessential Renaissance Man Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is considered the first medical illustrator as we understand the term today. Da Vinci was artistically talented (which is rather an understatement!) and combined his technical skills with his scientific knowledge and curiosity to draw hundreds of anatomical illustrations. However, these weren’t published until the 19th century.

After da Vinci, Andreas Vesalius’ De Corpus Fabrica Humani, published in 1543, was a significant milestone in anatomical understanding and illustration. By undertaking dissections himself and drawing on the work of da Vinci and other Renaissance artists, Vesalius was able to present careful illustrations of the organs and the structures of the human body.

Medical Illustration Today

Modern medical illustrators are indebted to medical illustrators from the Renaissance onwards, but new developments in printing from the 19th century changed the way medical illustrations could be made and shared. Color printing also enhanced illustrations. Digital illustration and high-strength microscopes are also part of a contemporary medical illustrator’s toolkit.

Today, medical illustrators are needed for a wide variety of projects. They’re more likely to be involved in educational and marketing projects than somewhat shady backroom dissections! And while medical illustrators are highly skilled and talented, they’re not likely to be considered scientific geniuses, as da Vinci was. (Sorry!) Medical illustration today is a skilled, technical career choice.  

Learn Medical Illustration

spine sketch
Source: Unsplash
Medical illustrators must understand the human skeleton.

So how do you become a medical illustrator? If you have scientific knowledge (or want to gain it) and artistic skill, there are various ways of getting into medical illustration.

At University

If you want to earn a medical illustration degree, there are four graduate medical illustration courses in North America that are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP): Augusta University (GA), the University of Illinois at Chicago, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (MD), and the University of Toronto, Canada. A handful of other institutions offer medical illustration courses that aren’t accredited by the CAAHEP, but these can still be good ways to get the necessary training.

In the UK, there are graduate options for a medical illustration degree at the University of Dundee, the Glasgow School of Art, and Liverpool John Moores University. In other places, you may need to take individual medical illustration courses as part of a broader design or science degree. Australia’s University of Newcastle sometimes offers a medical illustration course, for example.

Whether you take one of these medical illustration programs or choose to enter the field another way (through art or science education), it may be possible to secure a medical illustration internship. These are sometimes offered for undergraduate students still studying or for new graduates and those entering the workforce. Some hospitals offer medical illustration internships, so keep an eye out for local job and internship listings.

Online

arm muscle sketch
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It may not be possible to take an entire medical illustration degree online, but if you enroll in any university program, it’s worth checking whether any units can be taken remotely. Some universities have facilities for distance learning, especially these days!

If you’re less concerned about getting a formal online medical illustration degree but still want to learn the basics, there are plenty of classes in anatomical drawing. Putting effort into completing online courses taught by expert instructors will sharpen your skills, which you can use as an employee or as a freelance medical illustrator.

Certification

Medical illustration certification is available from the Board of Certification of Medical Illustrators. Not all illustrators who work on medical topics will need this medical illustration certification, but it demonstrates a high level of professionalism. As the Association of Medical Illustrators states, someone with this medical illustration certificate “has successfully passed examinations in business practices, ethics, biomedical science, and drawing skills and has undergone a rigorous portfolio review.”

How to Start a Medical Illustration Career

sketches
Source: Unsplash
Illustrations from Gray’s Anatomy (the textbook, not the TV show).

Medical Illustration Job Outlook

A medical illustrator career is a specialist one that requires niche and rare skills. There are believed to be only around 2,000 trained medical illustrators in the world, so you’re unlikely to come across many straightforward job openings for medical illustrators. But like in many creative fields, medical illustrators often work as freelancers, contractors, and consultants. This means there’s huge potential for work if you establish yourself as good at what you do and connect with the relevant people and companies. 

Medical Illustration Salary

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t list medical illustrator as a profession, instead including it under the umbrella of Craft and Fine Artists, which is a very broad field. The listed pay for this profession is quite low, but as this doesn’t take into account the specialist scientific nature of a medical illustrator’s work, the BLS statistics shouldn’t necessarily be taken too seriously for this career.

The Association of Medical Illustrators cites the earning potential of medical illustrators in the US as much higher: an average of $70,650, and up to $173,000. Established contractors and freelancers have the potential to earn higher salaries than many employees as they are sometimes able to set their own rates and choose which projects to work on. Like any creative freelance career, it’s possible to earn a good salary in a medical illustrator career if you’re strategic.

Types of Medical Illustration Jobs

medical textbook
Source: Unsplash
Medical illustrators can work on textbooks, among other jobs.

Medical illustrators have the potential to work in many different roles, either as an employee or a contractor. Industries or organizations that might employ or work with freelance medical illustrators include:

  • Medical schools
  • Hospitals or clinics
  • Research institutions and universities
  • Pharmaceutical companies
  • Medical prosthetics or implants companies
  • Cosmetic surgeons and medical estheticians
  • Government agencies and departments
  • Public health organizations
  • Medical and healthcare-focused not-for-profits
  • Book publishers
  • Law firms
  • Advertising agencies
  • Graphic design agencies
  • Web agencies or design firms
  • Software or app development companies
  • Television and film production companies
  • Museums
  • Dental and veterinary markets

Some of these on the above list may be obvious, while others not. Law firms and attorneys, for example, often need medical illustrators to help visually clarify complex concepts in injury or malpractice cases. And when it comes to publishing, think outside the box and beyond just medical textbooks: publishers of books for kids and teens—or even sci-fi novels—may need medical illustrators, too. 

If you can imagine a type of organization, company, or publisher that might produce documents with medical illustrations, there’s a chance you could work with them as a trained medical illustrator. This makes illustration a potentially exciting career choice with so many possibilities. What are you waiting for?

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