Medical illustrator and artist Danny Quirk walked onto stage with his latest work of art trailing behind him. Quirk’s artwork stepped into the light and turned around to reveal an anatomically accurate painting of his skull bones on the back of his head.
It was HUBweek in Boston, a seven-day lecture series celebrating science, art, and culture in the greater Boston area. Quirk’s audience waited patiently in the Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital to witness a “simulated” brain surgery with body painting.
Quirk used a combination of acrylic paint and latex to craft the stretchy plastic painting sheets on his model. After layering them atop his subject’s bald head behind stage, Quirk peeled off the bone-layer painting to reveal another accurate painting – this time of the brain. The effect was as if he had performed surgery on stage in front of the lecture attendees, much like doctors in the 1800s did in the Ether Dome, but without the blood. The audience loved it.
“I realized it was really needed as a great way of learning and seeing anatomy,” said Quirk, “making [the art] interactive, making it more moveable and more dimensional than a text book.”
Quirk’s signature style got started just as many original things do – by accident. It was Halloween a few years ago, and Quirk’s then-girlfriend wanted him to paint her face with the muscles underneath as part of her costume. Quirk got carried away with the accuracy of it all and discovered a talent he didn’t know he had. Now, Quirk spends a lot of his time painting models for talks at institutions like the Mayo Clinic and illustrating for medical journals such as Annals of Anatomy, and the Spine Journal.
As his style developed, Quirk began to realize the potential of body painting as an educational tool, and so did his peers. Medical students everywhere are known for cramming obscure terms into their brains right before an exam. With cadavers, illustrations, and photographs, these students created a mental muscle map, but rarely saw how these muscles moved on a living person.
University of Manchester School of Medicine graduate Meg Anderson thought the old study method was a problem, and in 2014 founded a program at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland called Art and Anatomy. She currently works as a Core Surgical Trainee at a hospital in Edinburgh.
“I found that sitting down and learning anatomy from textbooks to be quite inadequate,” said Anderson.
As a medical student, Anderson had difficulty remembering more than 206 bones and over 700 muscles in the human body. She had always liked art and found that by painting and drawing the muscles, she could remember them more easily. That is how she and her co-founder Nichola Robertson came up with their program.
Art and Anatomy Edinburgh holds anatomy courses and events throughout the year that attract medical students and the general public alike. Robertson and Anderson wanted to make anatomy fun while also supplementing the arduous task of memorizing complicated names like sternocleidomastoid.
Medical students enrolled in the Edinburgh course spend their time painting on each other. Carefully painting the inner workings of the hand on a friend in class gives students the chance to see the muscles move with their subject. It acts as a supplementary tool for more traditional methods of memorization, and medical students at the University of Edinburgh have been embracing this fun, new way of learning.
Aside from medical-student learning, Meg Anderson is thinking of other ways to incorporate and use body painting. Last October, Anderson presented a project at a plastic surgeons’ meeting in Scotland that she hoped would help breast-cancer survivors understand their upcoming surgeries more completely. By painting each step of a breast reconstruction surgery on a model and photographing it for a pamphlet, Anderson helped doctors walk their patients through the process. She wanted to give breast-reconstruction patients an idea of what was about to happen without showing nervous patients gruesome photographs.
The clinical applications of body painting fed its growth over the past few years. According to Gabrielle Finn in her 2015 book Teaching Anatomy: A Practical Guide,body painting helps students comprehend the asymmetry of the human anatomy. Not every organ resides in precisely the same location in each person, and body painting can help future doctors locate the organs in different patients by forcing them to paint on people with different body shapes.
Some medical schools no longer have full cadaver dissection on the list of required classes. According to the Toronto Globe and Mail, almost half of the medical schools in Canada have removed it from their core curriculum to leave room for more specialized study and save money on cadaver preparation. Some medical schools in Illinois have made full cadaver dissection an elective. Instead, students work on individual body parts. It takes time and costs money to maintain a cadaver for an entire semester, and students are becoming increasingly pressed for time.
Anderson and Quirk do not think body painting can replace human dissection, but it can certainly help when opportunities for cadaver dissection become limited. Incorporating kinesthetic and visual learning keeps medical students stimulated, which is shown through Art and Anatomy’s full courses. Demand for supplementary teaching methods is high, and body painting fits in with that need.
The staff at Art and Anatomy also encourage younger students to take part in body painting as part of public engagement. This past Halloween, artists at the Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh painted anyone who was willing to be a model.
“I’m not from a medical family,” Anderson said. “So I would have absolutely loved some exposure to something like this as a kid.”
Quirk and Anderson both want to make anatomy more accessible to the public and attempt to do so through art.
“You can peel away the layers and see how those muscles work on a moving, breathing body,” says Quirk, and he thinks that makes all the difference when engaging students.
This article is also featured on the Boston University News Service website, along with more of my classmate's work.