College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine

Under the skin

Surgeons and artists team up to engage medical students and the wider community in anatomy teaching.

Artist's flat
The Artist's Flat. Photo by SJM.

Accessed via a steep and narrow staircase at the very top of the Old Medical School lies the ‘Artist's Flat’; the original home of anatomical art at the University of Edinburgh. 

Between 1884 and the mid twentieth century Edinburgh Medical School had an artist in residence. From a studio overlooking the rooftops of the Old Quad, the artist would produce giant anatomically accurate teaching aids which still adorn the walls today.

Doctors that draw

There is no longer an artist working in the roof space, but in recent years the collaboration between art and anatomy has seen a revival at Edinburgh. This revival has been led by two doctors and a tattoo artist. 

Edinburgh graduate Nichola Robertson and Manchester graduate Meg Anderson struck up a friendship during their junior doctor years over a mutual love and appreciation of art and anatomy. During their student years they both found drawing and modelling to be an effective learning technique. Additionally, as future surgeons, they both recognised key transferable skills between the two fields.

The idea is that once you have painted the direction of muscle fibres on a live person's abdomen you have painted them onto the canvas in your brain to remain there.  Once you have moulded a vertebrae from clay you have moulded the memory of the different parts into your mind.  

Nichola RobertsonCo-founder of Art & Anatomy, Edinburgh

Inspiring young surgeons

The Art & Anatomy team
(L – R) Nichola Roberts, Kimmie Simpson, Meg Anderson. Photo by Jon Davey Photography.

NIchola and Meg set about designing a course that would engage and inspire students via innovative, but clinically relevant, methods of teaching.  The project was missing an artist so in stepped Edinburgh College of Art graduate Kimmie Simpson, who had impressed with her portfolio and style. 

After being awarded a Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme grant and with a successful pilot under their belt, the team aim to run courses for medical students which will complement their anatomy teaching and help bridge the gap between the pre-clinical and clinical years. 

Opening up surgery to the public

Spurred on by this success, Nichola, Meg and Kimmie looked to identify ways that this innovative way of communicating anatomy and medicine could be shared with a wider audience.

On 2 June 2015 members of the public filled the historic Anatomy Lecture Theatre in Teviot Place to hear globally respected body artist, Danny Quirke speak about his work. At the event the American artist unveiled a brand new piece of work, inspired by the rich history of anatomy teaching at Edinburgh.

Whilst Danny uses liquid latex and marker pens for his work, attendees had the chance to create their own anatomical artwork using other mediums such as clay, charcoal and paint in a series of workshops that followed the lecture.

Body painting has such untapped potential and seeing it used in a practical educational setting is great.

Danny Quirke

A curious crowd

Danny Quirk
Danny Quirk. Photo by Maverick Photo Agency.

The audience contained medics and art lovers, but also those generally curious about the subject area.

Portrait gallery enthusiast, Norrie Leonard had seen Danny’s work elsewhere and was keen to hear him speak, whilst nurses, Lauren Davies and Katie Murdoch's attendance was inspired by both an interest in surgery, and the historic setting of Edinburgh's Old Medical School.

Art event highlights wonders of anatomy

Medicine explored

The history and legacy of medicine at Edinburgh is also explored in the most recent edition of Edit. In this digital special, we brought together three current medicine students and three alumni from earlier generations to discuss the experience of studying and living in Edinburgh.

Topics discussed include the arrival of penicillin, fines for students being badly dressed, clinical attachments, teaching methods and extra-curricular fun.

Medicine then and now

Related Links


School of Biomedical Sciences