Scanning Around With Gene: A Pre-Computer Lesson in Anatomy

I went to a new dentist the other day and was blown away by the technology they had in the office. My old dentist was a bit of a traditionalist and had a minimum of fancy new gadgets. He did his best to explain things, but short of drawing on a slip of paper, he really had no way to actually show me what the problems were. Not so with the new dentist.

In addition to a full set of digital X-rays that showed up instantly on a large screen (which I could see), my new dentist took digital photographs of all the problem teeth and then blew them up on the screen for me to see – showing me every crack, rough spot and imperfection. It was all very impressive.

That got me to thinking about a couple of anatomical rubber stamp catalogs I had in my archives, so I dug them out and decided to share them today. These were used by doctors, students and anyone else who needed to illustrate a problem with the body. Simply stamp the appropriate body part on the patient’s chart and make annotations with a pencil or pen. Pretty basic, but I imagine it worked fairly well and saved everyone from having to make their own drawings. Click on any image for a larger version. I think the first catalog probably dates from the early 1940s and the second from the 1950s. Neither one is dated.

I think we’re all a bit fascinated by medical illustrations, though it’s always been a field I thought was a little creepy. Seems odd to turn your artistic talents toward such a profession.

But I suppose if you happen to have an interest in biology and are artistically talented, medical illustration makes perfect sense.

These images are pretty crude, though I suspect they are fairly accurate. They are just meant to show the basics, not a lot of detail.

The illustrations I’ve always been fascinated by are the kind your doctor or veterinarian has in their examining rooms – full-color, highly detailed drawings of the ear, nose, eye or whatever. Those really give me the creeps.

And the worst ones are the illustrations that show specific diseases and how they manifest themselves in the body. Why is it we’re so freaked out about seeing inside our bodies?

I really do respect medical illustrators, however because they show tremendous talent in two difficult fields. But I wonder what they use as reference material. I guess the earliest ones actually cut up dead bodies in order to see the details, something I can’t even imagine in my worst nightmares. But it had to be done.

I don’t know if hospitals and morgues and other medical facilities still use anatomical rubber stamps. In some ways it makes sense that they might. Sometimes you just need a simple drawing to tell the story.

As I get older I worry that medical problems will creep into my life, though so far I’ve been lucky. But I do know I’ll be a little freaked out if my doctor pulls out a set of rubber stamps and an ink pad. Then I’ll know I’m in trouble.

Posted on: November 16, 2012

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on

2 Comments on Scanning Around With Gene: A Pre-Computer Lesson in Anatomy

  1. Gene, you got me here — I was a medical illustrator for 13 happy years at a dental school, AND I’m married to a dentist. (I’ll admit, though, I drew waaay more bar graphs than anatomical drawings. No one had computers then.)
    Hope you like the new guy. Digital X-rays use sensors rather than film. The sensors are thicker & more rigid than the old film packets, and can be horribly uncomfortable. But it’s much quicker, much less radiation, and the images are amazing, as you say.
    As for the rubber stamps, I’m amazed, I never saw anything like that. I guess copiers eliminated much of the need for them. Got to admit, the bald armless twins kinda creep me out.
    I’m always a little surprised at people who aren’t interested in what goes on inside a body. To me, it’s just like taking engines or electronics (or printing presses!) apart to see how they work, and how to fix them. But it’s not for everyone.
    Well, I’m sure the doctor wants you to brush and floss regularly. Don’t chew on ice, avoid soft drinks like Mountain Dew, and keep your sulcus clean. And if you DO have any dental problems, let me know — I can draw them for you.
    – Kathy

  2. This is a great article!

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