Wits Review July 2015

Article from Wits Review  Page 12 July 2015 Vol 32

The Art of Anatomy

Dr Ashley Davidoff is a physician, artist, dancer, and gardener.  He combines his fascination for medical imagery  with nature and biology, to create art that educates and inspires.


Dr Davidoff (MBBCh 1975) was born in Johannesburg and educated at King David School. A creative child, he was an accomplished Flamenco and tap dancer by the age of 14. His decision to study medicine at Wits seemed a departure from creativity, but his artistic impulse would re-emerge later – inspired by by the late Phillip Tobias, renowned anatomist and paleoanthropologist.

Davidoff remembers his first Anatomy lecture at Wits when Prof. Tobias introduced a pair of black belt judoka and ballerinas to the students, taking the Hippocratic Oath and  dissecting cadavers.

“He wanted us to understand that the Hippocratic Oath was a promise to respect human dignity,” recalls Davidoff. “We were going to dissect the body into all its parts over the year. The judoka and ballerinas were to remind us how these parts working together brought perfection: parts making the whole, and the whole bigger than the parts. This philosophy has remained with me all my life.”


As a creative student in a more analytical medical environment, Davidoff struggled to make sense of the bits as they related to the whole.

“Medicine didn’t make sense to me until I dissected out the principles that governed the detail. I had to draw to aid the learning process,” he explains. “The Common Vein (his website thecommonvein.com) began as the path that helped me study medicine.

Davidoff graduated from Wits and then completed fellowships in paediatric cardiology at the hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and cardiac pathology at Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School. Here part of his job was to photograph heart specimens, which honed his appreciation of the beauty of structure.

“The diagnostic aspect of medicine really inspired me and I decided to enter the field of diagnostic imaging,” says Davidoff.

He subsequently completed a radiology residency and fellowship in cardiac and interventional radiology at the Brigham and Woman’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School. Then he took a year off medicine to indulge his creativity and “find himself.”  Davidoff, then 32, went back-packing in Europe to advance his interest in art and photography.

He resumed medicine in 1985 as faculty in the Department of Radiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Davidoff’s early interests in biology, and creative arts converged and The Common Vein evolved into an educational project.  Conventional medical (X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, ) are augmented  to display the beauty of form and function. The Common Vein methodically advances the student from simplicity to complexity.  It demonstrates how the whole is bigger than the parts.


Art and Science Converge at Dr Ashley Davidoffs ArtinAnatomy.com

Since 1998, Davidoff has presented award-winning demonstrations of The Common Vein. Annually he presents one organ at a national radiology meeting. For a year he delves into the medical, historical and cultural world of the organ; an intense experience that often compels him to to write poetry and artistically render the part. The cultural component lends a philosophical basis to Davidoff”s art.  His immersion in studying an organ often reveals ancient historical attitudes steeped in mythology. “Cell to Society” is a series that reveals the parallels of biology with an efficient and cooperative society.

Davidoff became a Clinical Professor of Radiology at the University of Massachusetts where he remained until 2002. Today he lives in suburban Boston and divides his time between clinical radiology St Elizabeth’s Medical Center and advancing his  creative interests in the arts and nature.

“Looking for the common thread that runs through the arts, medicine, and nature is what drives me,” concludes Davidoff.  “Finding out who you are and expressing it is fundamental to life.”