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I Am a Medical Illustrator

When people ask me what I do for a living I tell them, "I am a medical illustrator". This response often elicits a look of confusion, along with the question, "You're a what?" I then explain, "Basically, I draw body parts for a living."

More specifically, a medical illustrator creates artwork that is visually pleasing as well as being medically and scientifically accurate. As a medical illustrator I can create a variety of artwork including medical and scientific illustrations, multimedia interface designs, 2D and 3D animations, and storyboards for medical and health professionals, researchers, advertising agencies, pharmaceutical companies, personal injury lawyers, and the general public.

Medical illustration is a profession that combines the world of art and medicine. It was born in the 1500s when Andreas Vesalius published the first anatomical atlas based on human models. Since that time, medical illustrators (or biomedical communicators) have visually represented the human body and all aspects of medicine.

I always loved art and loved to draw, but never considered a career in the arts. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do when I completed high school. When I started at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I majored in chemistry. By the end of my second year, however, I realized that studying a chemical process or molecule in a lab was not for me, so graduate work in chemistry was out of the question. I considered applying to medical or dental school because I liked the idea of being a health care professional, but realized I would not enjoy the work. In my third year I learned about the Master of Science in Biomedical Communications (M.Sc.BMC) program at the University of Toronto. It is a 2-year professional graduate degree offered as a division of the department of surgery, in the faculty of medicine. It is the only program to offer medical illustration training in Canada and one of only six in North America. To get into the program, you typically need a 4-year B.Sc. degree. However, you can be considered with a 4-year nonscience degree if you have taken several prerequisite science classes. You also require a minimum B+ average and an art portfolio demonstrating strong art skills.

After graduating from Dalhousie University, I enrolled in a 1-year fine art program at Georgian College in Barrie, Ontario. My goal was to enhance my art skills and put together a portfolio that would improve my chance of acceptance into the BMC program at the University of Toronto. It was a gamble for me to apply for a program that accepts only eight applicants each year. Luckily, my efforts paid off and I was accepted in the fall of 2000.

The course itself was intensive with a combination of medical classes, art instruction, and computer training. We had classes in anatomy, pathology, embryology, neuroanatomy, surgical illustration, digital illustration, 2D and 3D animation, medical photography, medical legal illustration, and scientific illustration, just to name a few. Our small class of 8 spent many late nights in the computer lab or at our drawing tables and we became close friends. As part of the faculty of medicine we also had access to the anatomy labs and the teaching hospitals across the street. (Obviously, if you are the type that gets queasy at the site of blood, then medical illustration is not for you.)

After graduation, I had the task of finding employment as a medical illustrator. In Canada, most graduates stay in the Toronto area, either with a company or as self-employed freelancers. Some accept lucrative positions at U.S. companies, which aggressively recruit Canadian medical illustrators. Being an employee full time is often more secure, whereas self-employment can be difficult because you constantly need to find more contract work, especially when getting started. However, the latter gives you more flexibility and often you are able to generate a higher salary.

When I graduated, I was a newlywed and my husband was studying at the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College in Toronto. I had to support both of us until he graduated, so I wanted to find a stable full-time job with a steady salary. I freelanced for several companies in the fall and worked as an instructor at the University of Toronto teaching the class "Multimedia Interface Design". In December of 2000, I started a full-time position as a medical illustrator at BC Decker Publishing, where I created medical illustrations for continuing medical education CD-ROM's. With every program I developed, I learned about a new topic in a specific field of medicine. At the same time I was improving my illustration skills and adding to my portfolio of work.

In the summer of 2001, my husband and I made the decision to move back to the east coast to live in Halifax. My husband began work at Sackville Chiropractic Clinic and I became the first medical illustrator in Atlantic Canada. Being the first of anything means that the chance of being hired full time by anyone is slim. I had no choice but to become a self-employed medical illustrator and start my own business, Maritime Medical Design.

It has been a lot of hard work, but with a large medical school and research hospital, there is a lot of potential for a medical illustrator in this area. However, no one had ever heard of a medical illustrator before (see opening sentence), so you have to do a lot of explaining in the beginning. Eight months after moving back, I am starting to see the results of my marketing efforts with new clients and project offers. I am very glad that I discovered the field of medical illustration and decided to pursue this career path. I am paid to learn and create pieces of art that illuminate science and medicine for everyone.

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