Arts & Culture: A Brief History of Scientific Illustration

by Savannah Troy

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci

Art and science are often regarded as opposite fields: art is typically seen as being a field of passion and emotion while science is rational and strict. However, there is considerable overlap between the two realms. An example of such crossover is scientific illustration. Scientific illustration is critically important to the communication of scientific concepts- what good would a biology textbook be without a piece of art that brings concepts like the electron transport chain to life?

One of the most important early scientific illustrators is the renowned polymath Leonardo da Vinci. He was not only unparalleled as an artist, but he also had a keen sense of invention and curiosity that led him to pursue many scientific exploits. He filled notebooks of meticulous drawings of human anatomy based upon his observations from dissecting corpses. His ability to artistically communicate his observations facilitated great strides in scientific progress during the Renaissance.

Other key scientific illustrators include John James Audubon and Ernst Haeckel. Audubon was one of the nation’s most important wildlife artists and is the namesake of the Audubon Society. He endeavored to illustrate the avifauna of America in the early 1800’s and published a collection of 453 prints titled "Birds of America". The book quickly became wildly popular for its beautiful illustrations, which opened the eyes of Americans to the wonders of biodiversity. Meanwhile, Haeckel was a German man of many disciplines, including biology, philosophy, and art. Besides making landmark contributions to science (such as coining key terms like ecology, phylum, and stem cell), he also produced a book of illustrations that included overwhelmingly beautiful depictions of biodiversity. His illustrations focused on marine life and are appreciated for their meticulous details and sense of symmetry.

Science should be rational, sure. But it is also wonderful. The discovery of new natural laws and appreciation of the natural world is something fundamentally artistic. Therefore, it only makes sense that a form of intersection between art and science such as scientific illustration is a critically important aspect of both fields.