Skip to main content
No. 862:
Max Brödel

Today, an artist teaches us a new lesson in anatomy. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I'm in the clinic for a sonogram -- just a routine follow-up. It means waiting, so I carry a book. It is, by coincidence, Max Brödel: The Man Who Put Art Into Medicine. And I'd thought it was Leonardo da Vinci who put art into medicine. But when I look at Brödel's work, I know he was Leonardo's modern inheritor.

Brödel's drawings created an eerie virtual reality of the chest, the womb, the brain. Now I watch the poker face of the sonogram technician in the hard light of a computer screen. It is Brödel I'm thinking about as the woman finally shows me the cool gray pictures she's made -- the canyons and caverns of my own insides.

Brödel was born in 1870 in Leipzig, Germany. His father was a piano maker who trained him as a concert pianist. But he went off to the Leipzig art school instead. When he became a legal adult at 18, his angry father no longer had to support him.

He would've been in trouble, but then a remarkable break -- for medicine as well as for Brödel. Carl Ludwig, director of the Institute of Physiology, took him on as a part-time medical artist. He trained him and gave him a long leash. Brödel learned well. He did a study of the brain cortex magnified 150 times. He studied the human heart. By the age of 24 he'd given doctors means for seeing things they'd never seen whole before.

Then a second big break: When Ludwig neared retirement, the new Johns Hopkins Medical School offered Brödel a post. So he set off for America. He showed up along with a whole cadre of bright young doctors poised to define 20th-century American medicine -- giants-to-be, like Harvey Cushing and Thomas Cullen.

There he stayed until he died in 1941. His last work was an exhausting study of the anatomy of the human ear, published a few months after his death. One of the three drawings was finished by someone else, from his sketches. It looks like advertising art alongside Brödel's mystic vision of the human interior.

In 1938 a medical publisher hosted a banquet for Brödel. Brödel's close friend, the famous wit H.L. Menken, spoke. Menken and Brödel had been playing piano duets together for 28 years by then. But the most telling speech wasn't Menken's. It was by a reigning medical editor who said Brödel's art was on the edge of extinction. Color photography and interior lighting of the human body would put an end to the art he'd so perfected.

So I put on my clothes, pick up my book, and look back at that computer screen. I haven't been dissected; I can walk away. And those pictures are specific to me. It is a superb technology. It's not Brödel, but it is his continuation -- just as surely as Brödel himself was the continuation of Leonardo da Vinci.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Crosby, R.W., and Cody, J., Max Brödel: The Man Who Put Art Into Medicine. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1991.

Brödel, M., Three Unpublished Drawings of the Anatomy of the Human Ear. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Co., 1946.

I'm grateful to Jeffery Scoggins of Detering Book Gallery in Houston for spotting Max Brödel as the subject of an Engines episode.