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Medical Artwork of Shapes

Introduction to the Medical Artwork of Shape

Ashley Davidoff Copyright 2015



The basic shapes include a square, triangle, sphere, rectangle, and lines.

Shape is not at all a difficult concept to understand and appreciate.  After all, shape is at the epicenter in the description of all form.  Intuitively shape is understood from our own physical experiences, and we take it for granted.  However it is the one of the major determinants in medical artwork and art forms, science, geometry, and nature.

Shape lends innate beauty in nature, functional value in physiology, molecular biology, and biochemistry, as providing relevance in geometry, and architecture.  Abstract concepts like “shaping an idea” for example carry  intellectual, scholarly, literary and philosophical implications.

Georgia O Keefe an American photographer and painter is quoted as having said that “I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.”

Lewis Carroll said “When you are describing a shape, or sound, or tint; don’t state the matter plainly, but put it in a hint; and learn to look at all things with a sort of mental squint”.  This quote has a sense of creativity, while the quote ‘The devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape” by Shakespeare has a more ominous message.


Shapes in the Body

At an anatomical level, we are not unlike the ancient anatomists who struggled with the descriptors of shape and could only describe the form of anatomical structures by comparing them to known shapes in their environment.  Famous reference shapes were the moon and stars, foods, animals, plants, musical instruments, tools, weapons of war, boats, and letters of the alphabet.   Hooks are common: the hook of the hamate, uncinate process of the pancreas, or the falciform ligament all describe a characteristic curve.

Animals in the Hook Shaped Uncinate Process of the Pancreas

The tibia is supposed to look like a trumpet, the navicular like a ship, the sella turcica like a Turkish saddle, and the deltoid muscle like the Greek letter delta.  Artists developing medical artwork, anatomists, and clinicians have employed terms from nature’s bounty such as pear (or pyriform shape) for the uterus and gallbladder, almond shape for the ovary, tonsil and amygdala, and pea shape for the pisiform bone of the hand.

Pear Shaped Uterus

Pear Shaped Gallbladder

While some of these names are quite helpful and have been retained in our modern medical minds, others have been forgotten.  Most doctors and laymen alike would be surprised to learn the origin of the word muscle– from the Latin word “musculus” which means little mouse reminding the ancients of little mice under the skin.

At a biochemical level, shape of molecules is also highly important and relevant.  There is the linear shape of hydrogen, HCl, and CO2, the triagonal planar shape of BCl and AlCl3, the tetrahedral shape of CH4 and SiF4, the bent shape of H20, and the octahedral shape of SF6.  All have molecular consequence.

“Our goal is to control the shapes of new materials with the same level of precision that we exercise when controlling the stereo chemical relationships in a natural products synthesis.”  said Joseph M Fox, Assistant Professor of Organic Chemistry, University of Delaware.

Shape is difficult to quantify, and in diagnostic medicine, judgment is often invoked when evaluating structures of the body.  A minor deformity in a structure could be the earliest sign of disease.  Consequently an early diagnosis makes treatment more timely and more effective.


Spheres Above and Below

This post with revision appeared previously in in the section on Shapes

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