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The Art of Medicine

The pictures in this book will stimulate GPs' curiosity about the history of medicine. By Dr Atif Hassan.

The Art of Medicine: Over 2000 Years of Medicine in Our Lives draws on different historical eras to provide us an with overview on how concepts of body, disease and treatment have changed. 

Authors Dr Julie Anderson, Dr Emm Barnes and Emma Shackleton have delved into London's Wellcome Collection, which ranges from paintings, anatomical drawings, and scrolls to digital art.

The authors expertly explain the artefacts depicted to provide a comprehensive visual understanding of the human body across cultures. The book contains some of the first, inaccurate anatomical drawings from the ancient world, showing how images of the human body have evolved over time to modern-day MRI scans.

One of the earliest and most vivid images of the teaching of medicine I saw was a painting of the English physician William Harvey (1578-1657) dissecting an animal during a lecture on the circulation of blood.

This book looks at medical teaching beyond the time of William Harvey with fascinating paintings from across the world. 

Particularly interesting is the application of healing techniques, be they ayurvedic medicine (from India) or acupuncture or others used every day in our consulting rooms.

Technological advances

In the past 20 years remarkable images have been possible because of technological advances. Stunning images of modern high-powered microscopy, including Spike Walker's image Quinidine Crystals almost looking like fallen leaves, add colour and creativity that we would not otherwise associate with medication.

Exploration of practices, such as astrology and alchemy, and their influence on the burgeoning medical traditions in many different societies is also included. Though it may seem strange to many of us now, a painting of Queen Elizabeth 1 and her courtiers marvelling at the demonstration of an alchemist's work portrays alchemy as the 'cutting edge science' of its time.

The images of wounds suffered by soldiers during World War I are harrowing.

Mental illness

Mental illness has been so often stigmatised down the ages. The portrayal of phrenology in the 19th century shows the desperation of these patients and the lengths to which they would go to obtain a cure. In addition, the inclusion of art therapy images demonstrates how our understanding of the impact of mental illness has dramatically changed.

Portrayals of doctors grappling with disease are present throughout. They include the battle with smallpox up to the 20th century, starting with the association of the disease with spirituality to public health promotion of immunisation.

This book brings together images from all corners of the world and stimulates the reader's curiosity about the history of medicine. I recommend it.  

  • Dr Hassan is a GP locum in Birmingham
  • The Art of Medicine: Over 2000 Years of Medicine in Our Lives, priced £30, is published in hardback by Ilex Press

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