King's College London
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Learning from Lister

Anatomical drawings

Joseph Lister: student anatomical drawings (1850)Black and red chalk drawing depicting anatomy of forearm, with pen and ink annotationsFront forearm - lateral view. 1850. UCL Art Museum, University College London.

Lister's father was a botanist and ornithologist, as well as a microscopist, for which latter work he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. These interests, together with his passion for drawing, were inherited by his son, Joseph. The son's artistic talent and his ability to observe accurately are evident in these drawings, although they do not display, in Richard Fisher’s words, the ‘bizarre and morbid beauty’ of his paintings of pathological conditions of his patients.

The precocious Lister had been admitted to University College London as an undergraduate in the Arts faculty in 1843, at the age of sixteen. In Lister’s case, the Bachelor of Arts degree course comprised mathematics, the natural sciences and Ancient Greek. This was still a comparatively unusual course for prospective surgeons to attend, who historically had been less well and less broadly educated than physicians.

At the time University College London was the only available English institution which the Quaker Lister could attend, as Oxford and Cambridge debarred and King’s College London discouraged non-Anglican students. As a practising Quaker, he would have been unable to abide by the requirement which King’s imposed on its full-time students to attend an Anglican chapel service once a day. Lister started studying anatomy in the autumn of 1847, before he received his BA degree, as he had already decided on a surgical career.

Black and red chalk drawing depicting anatomy of chest and upper limb, with pen and ink annotationsChest and upper limb. 1850. UCL Art Museum, University College London.The Anatomy Act of 1832 had ensured an adequate supply of corpses for dissection, on which any serious study of anatomy depended. One of Lister's teachers at University College, Jones Quain, was the author of a textbook of anatomy, first published in 1828, whose popularity would be surpassed by that of Gray's Anatomy, first published in 1858. Lister follows the then recent practice of Quain in labelling parts of anatomical drawings by proxy.

He continued drawing after what is thought to have been a nervous breakdown in 1848, a crisis that may have had several causes: the death of his brother John; overwork; uncertainty about the choice of his career; and his own attack of smallpox. The experience of this breakdown may have made his professional relationships throughout his career more distant than would otherwise have been the case.

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