The workings of the nervous system by Fritz Kahn

A German, Jewish gynecologist, artist, and popular science writer extraordinaire, Fritz Kahn (1888-1968) is considered by many to be the founder of conceptual medical illustration.

Kahn produced a series of books during the 1920s on the inner workings of the human body using metaphors of modern industrial life. His modernist visualization was fitting since he was writing during a time of great industrial and technological change, especially in Germany.

Medical illustration before this period was very literal in its representation. Medical illustrations were used mostly in medical education and so the body was portrayed as accurately as possible mainly from cadaver dissections.

Max Brodel had already established the first medical illustration graduate program in the United States in 1911 at Johns Hopkins. Tom Jones, a student of Brodel, established his own program at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1921. Frank Netter was a young man in his mid-20s, soon to become one of the most recognized medical illustrators in the world. These men set the standards in medical illustration with their extraordinarily detailed styles.

Sagital section of hypophysectomy procedure showing the Killian incision by Max Brodel
Sagital section of hypophysectomy procedure by Max Brodel

In the early 20th century, public health was becoming an increasing concern with diseases such as diabetes, tuberculosis, and venereal disease becoming more common. It was obvious that initiative be taken to teach the public about their body and their health. Public health posters were produced to make people aware of the dangers of these diseases and ways to avoid contracting them.

Healthy Looks Can Hide Tuberculosis

While medical illustration was slowly spreading across America, Fritz Kahn was gaining great popularity in Germany with his successful 5 volume textbook on anatomy and physiology entitled Das Leben des Menschen; eine volkstümliche Anatomie, Biologie, Physiologie und Entwick-lungs-geschichte des Menschen (1926). [translation: The life of humans; a popular anatomy, biology, a physiology and a history of the development of humans]

The 5 volume set had over 1500 images including a poster of his famous illustration, Man as Industrial Palace.

Man as Industrial Palace by Fritz Kahn

Fritz Kahn had his own mission to educate the public on the human body, something he took very seriously. The success of his textbooks at the time was a combination of a lucid style of writing accompanied by captivating visuals portraying the body as a machine complete with

    factory workers
    switchboards
    assembly lines
    pipes
    wires
    pressure valves
    pumps

In his piece entitled Man as Industrial Palace (above), you can clearly see the hierarchy of departments within the body factory, with the center of operation located at the top of the head.

By illustrating the body as a factory, Kahn was able to relate the body’s complex organic interior to the industrialized space so common in society during that period. Kahn was part of a “visual education movement that came with developments in color photography, motion pictures, animation, and artful printed graphics used as a revolutionary way of instructing. It was a movement to help popularize science and medicine. Kahn used all of these mediums in his work to show how the body functions.

Photography

Manipulated photo showing the effects of sunlight on the health of the body by Fritz Kahn

Motion pictures

Fritz Kahn

Kahn’s illustrative style was heavily influenced by the modern artistic movement, which flowered in the early 20th century. Such styles include Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism, and Futurism.

Kahn spoke the public’s language both rhetorically and visually, which made him successful at what he did. He had a huge impact on medical illustration for the public and on illustrations of the body in commercial graphics.

His overly conceptual style did have its shortcomings of course. Oversimplifying the complex structure of the human body into the cold lifeless structure of a machine may have had little educational value in the end. But if his goal was to educate the public of the basics of human function, then a mechanical metaphor would suffice. Like machines, we need fuel, need to regulate temperature and pressure, and above all need to be maintained to function optimally. Even today we are hard pressed to escape the model of the body as machine. We still often refer to the heart as a pump, joints as hinges, and the brain as a circuit board.

As our ability to produce hyper-realistic illustrations and animations of the anatomy and physiology of the human body increases, there is still a need to go back to the oversimplified basics,

    the ball and stick figures of molecules.
    the lock and key models of enzymes and proteins.
    the lever and hinge models of muscles and joints.

Simplicity is the current buzzword in the design community. I think it was John Maeda that said “simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.” Applying meaning to the simple, like Kahn did, paves the way for more complex understanding.
The trend in medical illustration and animation today is to produce the most realistic representations possible. And we’ve succeeded in creating some groundbreaking visual effects of the human body.

But, I think we as medical illustrators and animators need to step back and find new ways to reinvent the simple; to truly make an impact on education. It’s easier said than done, however. Simple is often the most complex thing to achieve.

Sources and further reading