Pictures of Science: 700 Years of Scientific and Medical Illustration

Collection History

This digital collection draws upon the materials selected for an exhibition called "Seeing Is Believing," held in the Library's Gottesman Exhibition Hall, October 23, 1999 - February 19, 2000. Natural history materials were included very selectively in that exhibition; however, natural history materials have their own separate presentations in NYPL Digital Gallery, devoted to plants and to animals respectively.


The digital presentation reprises the exhibition's overarching premise: pictures, as Leonhart Fuchs noted in the introduction to his great herbal of 1542, "can communicate information much more clearly than the words of even the most eloquent men."

The exhibition posited three categories of scientific images. One allows viewers to "see" or understand information that defies direct observation by using different methods to show various kinds of theory or reality. For example, Copernicus's simple diagram of the solar system presented theory based on careful study. Other scientists, such as Vesalius, who elegantly depicted the muscles of the human body and Trouvelot' who gloriously attempted to present the wonders of the heavens, based their observations, though selective, on reality. A third type of image acts as a record of direct observation and communication, such as the steps for conducting an experiment or procedure, or simply the equipment needed, such as the apparatus Boyle used in his experiments on air.

The exhibition and this digital presentation share the same proviso. "Although not providing a comprehensive history of scientific and medical illustration, these images open a window on the radical shift in the cosmology of early modern Europe that began around 1543 with the publication of seminal works by Copernicus and Vesaliius, and continued with the work of Newton, Harvey, Darwin, Curies and others."

Related Resources

Baigrie, Brian S., ed. Picturing Knowledge: Historical and Philosophical Problems Concerning the Use of Art in Science. (c1996)

Ford, Brian J. Images of Science: A History of Scientific Illustration. (1992)

Horblitt, Harrison. One Hundred Books Famous in Science. (1964)

Lee, Jennifer B. and Miriam Mandelbaum. Seeing Is Believing: 700 Years of Scientific and Medical Illustration. (1999)

NYPL. "Heavens Above: Art & Actuality." (2001) <>

_____. "Seeing Is Believing." (1999-2000) <>

Robin, Harry. The Scientific Image: From Cave to Computer. (1992)

Tufte, Edward R. Envisioning Information. (1991, c1990)

See also the following Collection Guides for additional materials: Nature Illustrated: Flowers, Plants, and Trees, 1550-1900, and Classic Illustrated Zoologies and Related Works, 1550-1900.

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