Hidden History: Over 100 Years Mapping The Invisible

Karen Fleming, Gabrielle Finn

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review

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This is cross-disciplinary research has performative and ephemeral elements. The research was presented in the conference with illustrations of the methodology including documentation by Jen Hart) , examples of original source material with biographical and cultural references and the method was demonstrated.

The chosen phenomenon is dermatomes, which are areas of skin supplied by a single spinal nerve and are important in illness and anaesthetics. There are standard maps of dermatomes in most medical textbooks.

At the turn from the 19th to the 20th Century Sir Henry Head (1861-1940) a physician at the Royal London Hospital, published black and white maps that described the rash patterns of Herpes Zoster (shingles), at that time sometimes a fatal illness. Otfrid Foerster (1873-1941) is sometimes wrongly credited as the first to describe dermatomes and produced photographic maps in the 1930’s. Shortly afterwards Keegan and Garrett’s 1948 map gained wider circulation and has greatly influenced current illustrations and web-disseminated maps.

Dermatomes were chosen because colourful dermatome posters, illustrations of the male anatomy position, decorate consulting rooms around the globe, are 'learned' by medical students and are used by many doctors on a regular basis career-long. Every medical student learns about dermatome maps yet there is a large degree of confusion about their exact location and the visualization of them did not appear to always be evidence-based. Although dermatomes are important, they not currently an area for intense new research and there may be what we termed 'graphic creep' in how iterative changes in graphic representation have evolved.

The research collaboration built on previous work 2008-12 that was directed to producing artwork, and had indicated some anomalies in graphic representation. The research process brought together graphic analysis, medical humanities examination of cultural norms of representation in the 20th century, and applied and intuitive knowledge of body mapping accumulated from garment drafting (Fleming) and anatomy education (Finn). An artist (Fleming) and an anatomy teacher (Finn) rigorously mapped the 2D data found in four influential ‘maps’ of the modern era onto living anatomy. The research revealed areas of convergence and dispute, significant anomalies in the texts that had not previously been appreciated by professionals familiar with them. The conference paper also demonstrated how diagrams were reverse-engineered from examples of 3D mapping back into a flat graphic (replicating the test back translating). The research and resulting paper explore how evolving artistic conventions, prevailing design values, ethics, politics and rebranding in successive illustrations have influenced the scientific interpretation of what purport to be neutral objects.

The Book Crowder J (ed) (2014)' Visual Image and The Future of the Medical Humanities' published by the University of Houston accompanied the conference of the same name and includes a visual representation of all the conference contributions.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages2
Publication statusPublished - 9 May 2014
EventThe Visual Image and the Future of Medical Humanities - Galveston, United States
Duration: 9 May 201410 May 2014


ConferenceThe Visual Image and the Future of Medical Humanities
CountryUnited States
Internet address


  • cross disciplinary
  • Anatomy
  • body painting
  • Medical Humanities

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