Comics and illustrations

13 August 2014

Drawings, sketches and comics have all, at least once, crossed the path of science and medicine. Often used as a way of communicating and educating, the illustrated history of science is fascinating, surprising and mostly gruesome. Muriel Bailly takes a look.

Comic strips trace their history back to the 19th century in Europe and as far back as the 13th century in Japan. Over the last century the diversity of comics and graphic novels has grown hugely and covers almost any genre you can think of. Over the past decade or two, comic books have (arguably) benefitted from the exposure of their film adaptations as well their mention on popular TV series such as The Big Bang Theory. We even published a post about Marvel’s X-Men recently.

Using drawings or other visual representations to tell a story is a form of communication that goes back to our prehistory. Palaeolithic caves have been discovered with images ranging from abstract symbols to clearly identifiable animal and, more rarely, human representations, and are still being interpreted by archaeologists and scholars today. Egyptian hieroglyphs could be seen as an early form of comics, using long strips of symbols and drawings to tell stories.

 Weighing of the heart by Osiris, god of the Egyptian Underworld.
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Weighing of the heart by Osiris, god of the Egyptian Underworld.

One of the most impressive early attempts to tell a story through graphic representation is the Trajan’s column in Rome. Almost like an epic comic strip, the bas relief runs along the 30m (98ft) high column celebrating the emperor’s victory in the Dacian Wars. If that seems a little over the top, it’s worth remembering that using images was a way to ensure that everyone could access the information, even illiterate sections of the population. It is for this very reason that Bibles were often illustrated during the Middle Ages.

 The Apocalypse: antichrist has Enoch and Elijah beheaded.
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The Apocalypse: antichrist has Enoch and Elijah beheaded.

Until the first widespread use of photography in 1839 (thanks to Louis Daguerre), drawings and sketches were the common way to document events and research. In the world of medicine and science it’s important to mention the anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. The high status of the artist allowed him to conduct dissections in Renaissance Italy at a time when it was still highly controversial. From his studies of anatomy he produced over 200 detailed drawings, including the first scientific drawing of a foetus in utero. Despite the astonishing progress of technology and medical imagery, da Vinci’s drawings are still used today to teach medicine and anatomy thanks to their accuracy and level of detail.

 Leonardo da Vinci the anatomist .
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Leonardo da Vinci the anatomist .

Drawings and paintings also helped document the outbreak and development of major infectious diseases in a time before photography. Physicians and anatomists made accurate drawings and sketches of patients to map the exact appearance and development of diseases. An astonishing compilation of medical drawings covering cancer, smallpox and venereal diseases, to name a few, can be found in Richard Barnett’s recent publication, The Sick Rose.

 Early pustules of smallpox.
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Early pustules of smallpox.

Drawings and illustrations have been used as a tool to quickly and easily spread news and ideas for a long time. The Illustrated Police News in London, for instance, was one of the first British tabloids launched in 1842. The journal made great use of drawings and sketches to report domestic violence and social crimes. It encountered a large success for its coverage of Jack the Ripper’s murders which traumatised the whole of London in 1888. You can see a copy of the Illustrated Police News on display at the British Library in the brilliant Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK exhibition (on until 19 August).

Although it might make us smile today to see such important news reported in comic form, sketches are still crucial for police investigations despite the huge advancement in forensics science. Forensic sketch artists help to identify suspects by interviewing eyewitnesses and victims and reconstructing a crime scene from the evidence. Reporting bad news using comics and cartoons can make it more bearable to hear and, rightly or wrongly, distance readers to the topic.

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Cartoons and comics are also used to talk about sensitive and taboo subjects such as sexual orientation or sexually transmitted diseases. It’s not uncommon to find leaflets illustrated with cartoons in hospitals all over the UK explaining aspects of diseases and treatments to patients, especially children. Public health posters and pamphlets are common too: the high profile of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s alone led to thousands of posters being produced. The Wellcome Library’s collection of over 3000 AIDS posters reflects the importance of illustration in health education, as well as the evolution of both style and content over time as attitudes towards HIV/AIDS began to change.

 A personified penis wearing a condom in bed.
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A personified penis wearing a condom in bed.

Scientific publications also use comics to share their theories, including the Science Tales books by Darryl Cunningham and Graphic Medicine. We also recommend you check out Helix, a digital comic book story about DNA, its history, discovery and evolution, and what the future of DNA brings.

At Wellcome Collection we have been enjoying using illustration as a means to engage with our followers for almost a year now, thanks to the very talented Rob Bidder. Rob draws your stories and confessions every fortnight in our Medicine Now gallery for #CuriousConversations as well as in our Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition exhibition.

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Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.