Katie Grogan

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Thomas, Shawn


What is an atlas? To most people, an atlas is a collection of maps constructed by cartographers who meticulously plot the surface of the earth, inch by inch. In the medical field, we use the word atlas to refer to textbooks of human anatomy, but the endeavor is much the same, and no less painstaking – the human body is quite complex, after all. Though some anatomy atlases are famous for their beautiful depictions of anatomical structures, it is more important that they are accurate. What good would a map be otherwise?  

Yet this quest for accuracy is founded on an inherent dishonesty. Anatomy atlases are supposed to be our guides to the human body, but in reality, they depict the anatomical structures of only a human body. Every person is different, and that goes for their underlying anatomy as well. That being said, these minor variations are fairly unimportant for learners at the novice level. At the same time, one can’t help but feel like these books have been stripped of the key element that defines what it means to be human.

It is fitting that an artist would be the one to bring light to this issue. Laura Ferguson, Artist-In-Residence in the Master Scholars Program in Humanistic Medicine (MSPHM) at the NYU School of Medicine, has lived nearly her whole life with scoliosis. She saw in her own story the tendency of clinicians to boil a person down to a diagnosis – normal or abnormal. For doctors, this categorization is often necessary. But the artist recognizes that a person is more than just the sum of their parts. Laura saw past the medicalization of her anatomy and cherished the beauty of her curved spine.  

Laura’s arrival at the medical school ushered in a renewed focus on the humanism of medicine, starting with the Art & Anatomy seminar she began in 2009, open to students, doctors, researchers, and all other staff members at NYU Langone Health. In the seminar, students spend 90 minutes a week undertaking illustrations of various anatomical specimens: bones, organs, and even cadavers in the anatomy lab.  

Now almost a decade into this project, Laura has showcased her students’ work in her recent book Art & Anatomy: Drawings, co-edited by Katie Grogan, Associate Director of the MSPHM. Unlike with other anatomy books, the goal for her students was never to be “accurate”; such a word has limited meaning in the world of art. Instead, Laura taught students to observe things that they had never taken the time to see before. Then, she encouraged them to draw what they saw, as they saw it. The result is the compilation of drawings into a different kind of atlas – an atlas of the mind, of creative spirit, and of humanistic expression.

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