Art & Anatomy: Drawings

Ferguson, LauraGrogan, Katie

Primary Category: Literature / Literature

Genre: Photographs with Commentary

Annotated by:
Thomas, Shawn
  • Date of entry: Aug-23-2018
  • Last revised: Aug-23-2018


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.


Flipping through the student sketches from over the years brings back pleasant memories from when I attempted my own sketches as a student in Laura’s seminar. The book includes photographs from the classroom, which is an especially nice touch. It shows that the students who come to the seminar aren’t expert artists donning red berets sitting in a fancy art studio. These are students in scrubs, researchers finishing up for the day, who come to the anatomy lab for their artistic meditation, all the while bathing in the pungent aroma of formaldehyde.  

The artwork in the book showcases a broad range of skill levels, all of which were welcome in the art seminar. This was the crux of Laura’s message, which was that you didn’t need to be an expert to produce art that you could be proud of. To that point, I presume that most people who think they are no good at art have never given it an honest shot. As someone who was formerly in this camp, I am glad that I got the opportunity to see what I could do, even if my sketch of the human heart wound up looking like a misshapen whale.  

At the end of the book, Laura outlines the curriculum she has been using for the past 9 years to run her seminar, in the hope that other schools would be inspired by her work at NYU and adopt it for their own seminars in humanistic medicine. There is no doubt in my mind that this seminar would produce similarly spectacular results at other institutions. If there is one thing that Art & Anatomy: Drawings proves, it is that there is an artist living inside each and every one of us; just give us a drawing pad and watch what happens.

Primary Source

Art & Anatomy: Drawings by Laura Ferguson and Katie Grogan


University of California Medical Humanities Press

Place Published

San Francisco


Laura Ferguson, Katie Grogan

Page Count