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Surgery, art, and mediated matter

As long as there have been surgeons, there has been an interface with art. Da Vinci applied artistic skills to the study of anatomy and dissected numerous cadavers as he did so. Henry Tonks FRCS (1862-1937) first trained and then worked as a surgeon. He studied art in the evenings, was later an official war artists during World War I, and subsequently became Slade Professor of Fine Art.

Within Plastic and reconstructive surgery, there are contemporary examples of surgeons moving into or combining both worlds. Lisa Sacks is both an established plastic surgeon and recognised sculptor. Donald Sammut uses art as part of his assessment and planning: drawing detailed illustrations pre and post-op.


Neri Oxman explodes this interface in ways that are hard to fully comprehend. She began medical school (and was initially committed to becoming a surgeon) but after two years changed to study architecture. She now works as a designer and professor at the MIT Media Lab. Her artistic and architectural projects combine biology, design, computing, and materials engineering.


The Mediated Matter Group at MIT that she founded pioneers a new field called Material Ecology. This merges technology and biology in an effort to achieve ecological sustainability.

 synthetic apiary

Synthetic Apiary: an engineered collaboration between a 3D printed structural shell and honey bees.

Oxman’s philosophy includes, in her own words, a “shift from consuming nature as a geological resource to editing it as a biological one.” She uses multi-scale biological shapes, includes living components in fabrication processes, and advocates that engineering, design, and art ought to be more actively connected.

There is a tangible overlap between her approach and the day to day task of surgeons. Whilst surgeons intervene on a much more limited temporal and spatial scale, we too edit out pathology and rely on biological fabrication (healing) in order to be effective. Perhaps a surgical mindset still influences in her work – and perhaps we can innovate and inspire reciprocally. 


Mark Hughes

Consultant Neurosurgeon and Honorary Senior Lecturer, Edinburgh

Director, eoSurgical


Email: mark.hughes@eosurgical.com

Twitter: @eosurgical