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Brain anatomical illustrations

Researchers have been using a visual approach to understand the brain for centuries

December 10, 2012

The brain has been object of study for several centuries. This has to do with the need of knowing ourselves in order to better understand who we really are.

Its great complexity makes it still a challenge to scientific investigation. The study of the brain has been and will be, during the next years, a great bet. It is expected that we get results on brain study faster than in the past, mainly because of the development of nanotechnology, of the ability to manage and handle great amounts of data and because of the ‘neuroimaging’ methods, among others. Today, these are the  valences the scientists can count on.

However, some centuries ago, they had to make use of other methods. If we go back in time, we realize that, in particular concerning the anatomical study of the brain, researchers have been using since early times a visual, aesthetic  and artistic component in order to clarify and make a practical use of gathered  information on the brain structure.

Scientific Illustrations (first monochromatic ones and polychromatic later) had, in this context, a huge importance, since they were an accurate visual instrument to the study of the brain.

Several researchers contributed to the study of the brain, putting together written descriptions and illustrations of great value. Here are some examples:

Guido da Vigevano: Inventor and Italian physician who in 1345 drew the one considered to be the first rigorous drawing of the human brain.

(Guido da Vigevano’s representation of the brain, in 1345)


Leonardo Da Vinci: In his thousands of drawings and schemes we can find anatomical drawings. In the picture below (1504-1506), Da Vinci illustrates the skull and the brain using the exploded view technique This is the first anatomical drawing using this technique.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s illustration of the skull and brain (1504-1506)


Andreas Vesalius: physician, considered the founder of anatomy. In 1543 he published De Humani Corporis Fabrica, a treaty of anatomy.

Andreas Vesalius’ brain illustration in De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543 )


Giulio Casseri: surgery and anatomy professor at Padua University. Among his students was Adrian van de Spiegel, who later succeeded to Casseri on the anatomy and surgery subjects. After his death, his work on anatomy was published along with Carreri’s illustrations, in 1627, on the De humani corporis fabrica libri decem.

(Illustrations by Giulio Casseri, published on De humani corporis fabrica libri decem,1627)


Thomas Gibson: physician of the English army, who published The Anatomy of Humane Bodies Epitomized in 1684.

(Thomas Gibson’s representation of the brain, in The Anatomy of Humane Bodies Epitomized,1684.)


Shinnin Kawaguch: official physician during the Koga domain, that in 1772 published the second text on anatomy in Japan, Kaishihen (dissecation notes), based on experimental observations using two corpses.

(Illustration by Shinnin Kawaguch, published on Kaishihen, 1772)


Thomas Willis: English physician, founder member of the Royal Society, who published Cerebri Anatome (On the anatomy of the brain) in 1664. In this picture the human brain (on the left) and the sheep brain (on the right) are presented.

(Thomas Willis illustration included in the Cerebri Anatome, 1664)


Félix Vicq d’Azyr: physician of Queen Mary Antoinette and member of the French Academy of Sciences and Academy of Medicine. He published the Traité d’Anatomie et de Physiologie em 1786, the most accurate neuroanatomical work produced before the advent of microscopic staining techniques”.

(Félix Vicq d’Azyr brain illustration, in Traité d’Anatomie et de Physiologie, 1786)


Jean-Baptiste Marc Bourgery: French physician and anatomist, worked on his Traite Complet de l’Anatomie de l’Homme since 1830 and until the year of his death (1849). The last volume of this work was published posthumously. The illustrations belong to Nicolas-Henri Jacob.

(Illustration included in Traite Complet de l’Anatomie de l’Homme, by Jean-Baptiste Marc Bourgery, 1849)


Harvey Cushing: American neurosurgeon, considered the precursor of modern neurosurgery. Drawing of the brain (between 1900 and 1910).

(Drawing of the brain by Harvey Cushing, 1900-1910)


Charles Bell: anatomist, surgeon and neurologist. He was the first anatomy and surgery professor at the College of Surgeons in London. He was also professor at King’s College London and Edimbourg University. In 1802 he published The anatomy of the brain, explained in a series of engravings.

(Illustration by Charles Bell, in The anatomy of the brain, explained in a series of engravings, 1802)


Mitsutane: In 1813 published ‘Kaitai Hatsumou’, a treaty on anatomy in 5 volumes.

(Illustration by Mitsutane, in ‘Kaitai Hatsumou’, 1813)


Joseph Vimont: graduated in the Faculty of Medicine of Paris. In 1836 he published the Traité de phrénologie humaine et compare.

(Illustrations by Joseph Vimont, in Traité de phrénologie humaine et compare, 1836)



Written by Susana Pereira

Susana Simões Pereira, maths teacher and PhD in science teaching and communication. I enjoy games and photography and I'm passionate for science and art, specially when together in the same context. You can follow my updates on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.