When Anne Altemus was a teenager, a medical illustrator came to her high school and talked about her career.
Altemus missed the presentation, but her friends were there.
They had advice for her: This is really cool. You should do this.
Even though she had no idea what it would be like be a medical illustrator, she agreed because she enjoyed art and science. She also had no idea just how unusual this profession is. The Association of Medical Illustrators estimates there are fewer than 2,000 trained practitioners in the world.
Before she could begin what would become her lifelong career and eventually lead her to run a biomedical communications program, Altemus had a lot to do.
She would graduate from college with bachelor’s degrees in fine art and sociology and a minor in biology. She would manage restaurants and tend bar. And she would hone her skills by taking more fine art classes.
Only then did she get accepted into the first and oldest medical illustration program in the country. Conveniently, the Art as Applied to Medicine program, founded in 1911, was located at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Altemus’ hometown.
“I went into medical illustration in love with art and wanting to do art,” said Altemus. “I came out loving medicine and science and the world of health information, and I think that’s not unusual.”
Altemus not only graduated with a master of arts degree in medical and biological illustration from the Johns Hopkins program, she would teach there and become acting chief of the Audiovisual Program Development Branch (APDB) in the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications, which provides service support for and coordinates the use of NLM audiovisual facilities.
Coincidentally, Altemus had just finished her thesis on cardiac embryology when NLM needed a medical illustrator to work on an interactive program on cardiac embryology.
Looking back, she said, “It was a good fit and a temporary job.” The temporary turned into permanent a few years later, but the good fit has lasted 26 years.
“The Library’s mission is very exciting to me,” said Altemus. “We’re making information available to lots of people.”
Working at the Library has been “eye opening” for Altemus who said, “The idea of being able to work in a library and coming to understand how important Lister Hill is to biocommunications, it seems perfect that medical illustrators are here.”
An evolving job
“When I was a graduate student there were three classes that I thought would have no applicability to my job—medical television, exhibit design, and instructional design,” said Altemus. The first two classes have been applicable to Altemus’ career at NLM, and she teaches instructional design at Hopkins. “You never know,” she said.
Indeed, Altemus’ job has evolved. Her initial work at the Library involved illustrations until she was asked to lead a video production. And making medical literature freely available online, expanding how people get information, and emerging digital technology have made a tremendous difference.
“Before digital technology, this branch was a silo of graphic art and a silo of video production and engineering,” she explained. “The convergence of creative digital technologies brought everyone together.”
“Our work is about visual problem-solving and visual storytelling. Our foundational skills are applicable to NLM projects that aren’t only anatomical or biological illustrations,” said Altemus. “We dig in. We find out and discover and really understand what the goal is. We identify who the audience is and we define and describe what kind of medium we’re going to use.”
“Kristin is using the latest tools and techniques to create beautiful 3D models with our Visible Human data and she’s organizing them in a visual library that is intuitive to people on how they access different structures in the body,” said Altemus. “It’s in line with our philosophy that there’s no database worth its salt if people can’t use it.”
She praises Bliss for his work with the National Cancer Institute. “Donny’s model of the dendritic cell completely dismantles what molecular researchers thought about the structure and functions of the dendritic cell,” she said. “He took on something that is structurally accurate and made it visually stunning, useful, and educational.”
Altemus also has accolades for Day’s art. “Jeff is working to help convert a print publication into an interactive publication,” she said. “The objectives of NIH MedlinePlus magazine are unique in that it’s multi-institutional and it has to contain state of the art information, but it also allows for personal stories. Jeff’s visuals will enhance and tell these stories in ways that are more comprehensive.”
In addition to her A-Team, Altemus estimates she’s brought in about 40 interns and post-grads to work in her department over the past 25 years. “We’re all ambassadors here,” she said.
Emphasis on the future
Increasingly, NLM is reaching out to patients, families, and the public.
“How does the Library reach out to them, communicate to them, and compel them to trust Library resources?” asks Altemus. “I think its through visual storytelling. Visual interactives, animation, and well-designed interfaces that go back to that idea that no database is worth its salt if no one can use it. We always look at who the intended audience is and create visuals for them. There is a great role for medical artists and this branch.”
Altemus continued, “Visual information is as important as text-based information.”
In other words, a picture is worth a 1,000 words?