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Surgeon and scientific illustrator use art to educate

Many of the great anatomical advancements throughout history were collaborations between anatomists and artists. In the case of Leonardo da Vinci, well, he was both. But take the gifted anatomist Henry Gray, author of Gray's Anatomy, easily the most famous anatomy textbook ever. Unknown to many, while Gray dissected unclaimed bodies from workhouses and morgues in the 1800s, it was his collaborator and artist Henry Carter who created the anatomic illustrations that the book, is famous for. (Check out author Bill Haye's book: The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray's Anatomy.)

I learned about some of this history from scientific illustrator Chris Grallap during my interviews with her for today's article in Inside Stanford Medicine about her 24-year collaboration with Stanford surgeon Robert Jackler, MD. Working side by side, the two have created three illustrated books on skull base surgery and are now working on a fourth, an exploration of middle ear surgery. Much of what they've illustrated has never been drawn before. This passage from the story describes how it works:

"I'm a terrible drawer," said Jackler, professor and chair of otolaryngology, who for years has arrived fresh from conducting surgeries -- all in all, thousands of procedures removing cranial base tumors, restoring hearing, repairing eardrums, and other problems -- and begun describing in vivid detail to Gralapp exactly what he has done inside his patients' heads. Often he scribbles on paper to help convey his thoughts. "I make my messy sketches," he said, "And she brings them to life."

Over the years, they've discovered the creative methods that work best for them. Gralapp no longer joins the surgeon in the operating room. Instead she interprets his knowledge through art, a skill they've perfected over many years:

The two share their own visual language using colors and simple shapes to illustrate surgeries often microscopic in scale. They speak in colors and symbols and the intricacies of difficult to get-to anatomical spaces that few in the world have seen up close and personal.

"I think blue would describe this better," Jackler said. "And, When I think of the tympanic membrane I think of clouds. It's almost all water."

Years of practice have honed Gralapps interpretation skills, and she quickly brings his words to life.

"I've been a bit impressionistic here," she said.

He nodded.

"That's beautiful," he said. Then made a few more suggestions

A little more shading, a little bit more shaping, and they're one step closer to the truth.

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