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Vol. LVIII, No. 19
September 22, 2006

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CC Galleries Display Richness of NIH Medical Art
1994 conference poster
This illustration graced an NIH consensus development conference poster in 1994.

While scientists work in their labs in the Clinical Center, a different kind of creative process is taking place several floors below. Artists are at work.

For decades, medical illustrators and graphic designers have helped NIH scientists tell the story of their research and have contributed to the understanding and awareness of advances made here.

The contribution of the artists and their collaboration with scientists is celebrated in a new exhibit in the CC galleries. “NIH Medical Illustration and Poster Design Past to Present,” features a collection of illustrations from the 1950s to the present and a retrospective of posters created by NIH Medical Arts.

"I think our posters and medical illustrations should be the best in the country because we represent the country in the field of health care," says lead illustrator Alan Hoofring. "We should push the envelope and set a look that everyone else wants to achieve."

"The medical illustrators at NIH are phenomenal artists," says Lillian Fitzgerald, curator of the CC galleries.

"Their illustrations are an integral aspect of our research and part of the fabric of how NIH works," adds Crystal Parmele, director of the CC art program.

The exhibit provides a window on how both science and the visual arts have progressed during the past 60 years. Illustrations on display represent a range of topics and artistic styles and show the evolution of approaches from hand-drawn to computer-aided and three-dimensional renderings.

An illustration of an eye
Alan Hoofring won an American Medical Illustration Award of Excellence for this work explaining the barriers encountered when trying to deliver drugs into the eye.

Hoofring's entry is a medical journal illustration explaining the barriers encountered when attempting to deliver drugs to the interior of the eye. It is a pencil sketch combined with imaging-editing software. There is a huge amount of information per square inch in the artwork.

At the other end of the spectrum is a bold and bright computer-aided rendition of an essential metabolic enzyme, pyruvate dehydrogenase, by Don Bliss, who is now with the National Library of Medicine. The artwork, requested by researchers to accompany a journal article, also made the cover of the publication.

The illustrators and designers, past and present, say while the tools they use have evolved over the years, the biggest change has been the subject matter they are asked to represent. They are doing fewer anatomy and surgery pieces and more illustrations of research at the molecular level.

"We follow the science," explains Linda Brown, creative services director for NIH Medical Arts. "It's cutting-edge. The procedures are experimental. The science is new. It gives us the opportunity to do things that no one else gets to do."

And, they frequently do it first — illustrating topics that haven't been shown before.

Picture of an AIDS poster
This poster was created in 1983 by Betty Hebb while she worked in NIH Medical Arts and was one of the first posters for an AIDS conference.

One example is AIDS research in the 1980s, says Martha Blalock, team lead, design and illustration for medical arts. "When scientists first started researching the virus that causes AIDS, we didn't know what it looked like. Illustrators were coming up with these new images. We're capturing memories and pieces of a period of time in scientific development." The exhibit includes one of the first posters for an AIDS conference.

Three current medical illustrators, Hoofring, Ethan Tyler and Lydia Kibiuk have won American Medical Illustration awards. All three, and several past illustrators, graduated from the training program at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where they took anatomy, cell biology, histology and other courses alongside medical students. All three took a class at Hopkins from former NIH illustrator Howard Bartner.

"We're a very rare breed. There aren't many of us running around," says Bartner, describing the service illustrators provide and the specialized, graduate-level training. Bartner was hired for his expertise as an ophthalmologic illustrator and worked with prominent researchers throughout NIH for 42 years before retiring. Samples from his extensive body of work are in the exhibit.

"We're not illustrating birds and flowers. We're illustrating information that may need clarification and will be further enhanced with images," explains Bartner. A good illustrator, he says,"can take the ideas, and photos, or whatever a doctor brings to your desk and create an image that goes far beyond what the doctor anticipated." A talented illustrator creates pieces "that are beautiful to look at and pull you into the drawing so you come away understanding something you might not have understood before."

The illustrators and graphic designers at NIH all say the key is to listen, to understand just what's in the head of the person who asked for help.

Graphic designers are called upon to create the posters, invitations, mailings and other related materials for lectures and special events and to produce public-education and patient-recruitment materials.

Designer Bryan Ewsichek says it's his job to take in a lot of information and distill it into something the public understands. "It comes down to the simplest image to tell the story for the general public — an image that is eye-catching and will draw people in."; The exhibit includes a poster he created for a conference on chronic insomnia. He based his design on a television test-pattern one would see in the early morning hours when all programming has ended and most people have gone to sleep. The poster earned him an award from the American Institute of Graphic Arts and the honor of being published in Communication Arts 2006 Design Annual, a graphic-design magazine.

Hoofring and Blalock, who organized the exhibit, say this is a chance for the artists to honor their clients. As Bartner notes, "The relationships you form with the doctors enhance your experience."

There's no other workplace like NIH, says Brown. "Where else do you get to sit at a table and talk with a Nobel Prize winner and watch him fold up a napkin to explain the image he wants you to create?"

The exhibit in the CC runs through Nov. 3. The illustrations are on display on the first floor of the Hatfield Bldg. The posters can be seen on the first floor of the Magnuson Bldg. For more information visit

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