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[November 27, 2009]

From Da Vinci to Downstate: Brooklyn Medical Students Learn Anatomy Through Sculpting

For centuries, medical students have learned about human anatomy, physiology, and illness using artist renditions of the human body and its components. Examples range from the famed anatomical drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci to the wax “moulages” – sculptures of disease states – of the 19th-century British sculptor Joseph Towne.

SUNY Downstate Medical Center is breathing new life into this age-old practice by offering medical students an elective course in creating fully lifelike, anatomically correct human organs. The course, “Understanding Anatomy Through the Art of Sculpting,” is being taught by artist and fourth-year medical student Zachary Svigals and Samuel Márquez, PhD, assistant professor of cell biology.

“Artistic and creative intuition has helped advance medical theories throughout history, as evident in the extraordinary theoretical leaps of Leonardo Da Vinci,” says Dr. Márquez. "This course seeks to open again this rich avenue of observation, exploration, and creativity.”

“Art and medicine have never been mutually exclusive pursuits,” adds Mr. Svigals. “Artists, sculptors, physicians, and surgeons all study the shape and proportions of the human form.”

“We know from experience at other institutions that fine art courses have enhanced the visual diagnostic and observational skills of medical students and that clay modeling is an effective means of studying human muscles,” says Dr. Márquez. He also notes that a drawing and sculpture course taught to plastic surgeons improved their judgment of proportion and understanding of patients’ deformities. “We expect that this course will train the eye to see in greater detail. In the process, medical students will gain dexterity, an intuitive appreciation of form, and a greater understanding of what is normal and abnormal in anatomy.”

Dr. Márquez is also co-director of gross anatomy in the College of Medicine, director of anatomy in the College of Health Related Professions, and director of the Anatomical Donor Program at SUNY Downstate.

Mr. Svigals graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2004 with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and a Bachelor of Arts degree in sculpture. He studied art in Florence, Italy, where Da Vinci lived and worked, and where Mr. Svigals created the city’s first international student art exhibition. Before entering Downstate’s College of Medicine, Mr. Svigals was a tutor for primarily under-advantaged students in Match Corps, a program at Boston’s Media and Technology Charter High School.

How the Course Originated


The idea to have medical students sculpting in clay was a collaboration between Mr. Svigals and Dr. Márquez, in which the two came from different perspectives to create this course.

Mr. Svigals, 27, always wanted to combine his two passions, biology and art, and was interviewed by Dr. Márquez when he applied to Downstate. Dr. Márquez knew of Mr. Svigals’ sculpture background and his desire to incorporate art into his medical education, and asked Mr. Svigals during his second year as a medical student to sculpt anatomically correct structures and anomalies. Dr. Márquez wanted medical students to analyze Mr. Svigals' sculptures to decipher what was normal versus abnormal. 

After Mr. Svigals completed his sculpture of the heart, he realized that the actual process of sculpting provided the greatest benefit. “Through molding the clay into anatomically correct structures and by analyzing the piece from every angle,” said Mr. Svigals, “spatial relationships were registered, understood, and committed to memory.” Mr. Svigals then proposed the idea of a sculpture anatomy course to Dr. Márquez, who enlisted support from his department and the campus administration.

Since 2004, Dr. Márquez has mentored 53 students pursuing special anatomy projects.



SUNY Downstate Medical Center, founded in 1860, was the first medical school in the United States to bring teaching out of the lecture hall and to the patient’s bedside. A center of innovation and excellence in research and clinical service delivery, SUNY Downstate Medical Center comprises a College of Medicine, Colleges of Nursing and Health Related Professions, a School of Graduate Studies, a School of Public Health, University Hospital of Brooklyn, and an Advanced Biotechnology Park and Biotechnology Incubator.

SUNY Downstate ranks ninth nationally in the number of alumni who are on the faculty of American medical schools.  More physicians practicing in New York City have graduated from SUNY Downstate than from any other medical school.