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Biomedical Communications Alumni Association


BMC, Sweden and Navigating Copyright

An Interview with Medical Illustrator Tommy Hellström

Medical illustrator (Tommy) in Stockholm City, ca 2008

Could you give me an overview of the kind of work that you do and have done?

I have done all kinds of illustrations; diagrams, schematic, operational procedures, pain-related, for specialists, laymen and ordinary people, and so on. For some years I had my own department in Huddinge hospital, doing illustrations with and for a wonderful professor and friend. He was a specialist in pancreas transplantations. This became a little of my specialty too and after many interesting years together, we finished our collaboration with a comprehensive book about…you guessed right, transplantations (Pancreatic Transplantation, edited by C. G. Groth, W. B. Saunders Company, 1988). From 1977 till 1988 I was an active medical illustrator with my own company – Studio for Medical Illustrating. At the beginning of my career as a medical illustrator, the newspapers described me as a pioneer. And, it was a tough start!

The Lungs with Alveoli, carbon dust, 1979

What began your interest in medical illustration?

When I was very little, on a map I drew a long arrow from Sweden to Canada and penciled in letters “Here I will go!”, at the time not knowing what it really meant.

I have been drawing since I was very, very small. I continued drawing growing up and later applied to art school. After finishing compulsory school, I studied math at university. Then I moved on to study medicine (Anatomy and Clinical Pathology) at the medical faculty at the Caroline Institute (Karolinska Institutet) in Stockholm, in an effort to become a medical illustrator.

One day, around 1972, I read about a guy that was a medical illustrator and trained at AAM, University of Toronto. In 1974, I filed an application to this school in Toronto. Suddenly I remembered my scribbling in the map-book – “Here I will go.”

You have such an interesting academic background! Do you still love math? Has it informed your practice in any way?

Mathematics is all around us. Impossible to avoid. It is in every detail, in every part in our world and outside our world. Just think of the Fibonacci sequence in nature. Fibonacci sequence in music, the fractals, and the Golden ratio, including God’s eye at the end of the curve and the straight lines connecting the four corners creating a cross! You can find the Golden ratio in the embryo, the ear, in a section of a shell and even in the galaxies. That’s something, isn’t it? Did you know that laying under a tree, watching the branches emerging from the trunk, you can actually count mathematically exactly where the next branches are going to emerge? It wouldn’t surprise me if the same counts for blood-vessels. Look at the sun flower and its seeds and how the seeds in a corn cob are twisting in perfect harmony mathematically. I think the interest for math lies dormant in us all, in one way or another.

I remember the first time I studied a corpse in the pathology department. I was so amazed during a lecture that I forgot to pull my head out in time from inside the chest of the corpse. When the teacher turned the corpse over I was still inside looking at all the beautiful details (the symmetrical ribs etc.) and got an arm of the body slapped onto my face! At UofT, in the anatomy lecture, I was again amazed over finding a ribbon of white, perfectly structured and lined up white pearls. Like a beautiful necklace. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It was the spinal ganglion! By studying and lecturing math, I got a very humble attitude toward the human body. It is even more intricate than we can ever imagine. When I illustrated, I felt that I was merely scratching the surface of our wonderfully created body.

Medical illustrator (Tommy), 1997 (photo)

How was your experience at BMC?

A completely new world. Exciting beyond words. Friendliness. Much joy. New friends with the same interest and goal. A happy and adventurous moment in life. Skillful teachers. Wonderful university. A program perfectly put together, to create a professional illustrator of medicine. AAM, or BMC today, made me complete in a sense. I wouldn’t want to be without this precious time and experience in my life.

One time though, I witnessed a mishap in communication and behaviour. I freely admit that mistakes happen to us all sometimes. We had an assignment to do research on a surgical procedure. One day I happened to see one student copying an illustration from a book. And then, consciously presenting this illustration as her own at the exhibition of our works! I felt obliged to inform the responsible teacher/professor. Unexpectedly, the teacher defended the student and didn’t do anything about it. No report at all. That moment I have never forgotten. We had just learned that it’s better to do a serious job yourself than to steal/rely on others. Because, except from plagiarism, if the original illustration contains mistakes, we are prone to also copy the mistakes. From that day on, I felt sorry for and lost some faith in that particular student and teacher. It was so unfair, wrong and unnecessary to the rest of us.

Abnormal fundus, watercolour & airbrush, 1977

What do you remember most about those years, your fellow students and professors?

I was impressed by the teachers’ professionality. I felt we had the best ones. Nancy Joy, our head and leader. Steve Gilbert in pen and ink. Frederick Lammerich in isometric drawings (1911-2013!). Elisabeth Brödl (Max Brödl’s daughter – Max, our founding “father” of medical illustration), visiting professor. Bob Demarest, visiting professor. Gerald P. Hodge. Professor William (?) Thompson in anatomy. And, not the least, the superb Professor Harry Whittaker, the friendly janitor (!) who became our fantastic histology teacher. To mention a few.

Nancy Joy’s teaching and wise words still ring in my ears after all these years. She taught me how to approach a problem or subject, almost a little like Sherlock Holmes. Some people don’t know that she was also an inventor. We visited her at her cottage in Lake Huron. There she taught me how to paddle a canoe, among other things. She was a real pedagogue, in the right sense of the word. I miss her.

Steve Gilbert from Oregon, U.S.A., was our brilliant pen and ink teacher. I was a little impressed when he showed me a picture of him with Walt Disney. Steve also taught us how to create movies from colored cells. He was famous for making his own teaching books about strange fishes and reptiles, which won him many prizes. He was very proud of all the tattoos he had gathered when traveling. I loved him very much!

Frederick Lammerich was from Germany. We both felt an immediate bond and connection, both coming from Europe. He had designed paintings in churches in Germany. And he knew all about perspective. I am always indebted to him for that.

One day we were going to have Elisabeth Brödl for a guest! I was assigned to meet her at the bus station and help carry her luggage. She was an elderly, grandma type of woman, and timid in a way. You couldn’t but love her at once! She illustrated very delicately, in a way that resembled the renditions of her father.

Bob Demarest from the US taught us a couple of times at the AAM. He made medical illustrations look very easy to do. He was so quick in his performance of an illustration! I remember him saying to us: “How to start illustrating? I used to take a cold shower, put on a white shirt, roll up the sleeves and start.” A piece of cake. A great medical illustrator, indeed.

Gerald P. Hodge invited our AAM group to Johns Hopkins University, to meet our fellow friends in medical illustrating there. We were even invited to his and his wife’s home. I still remember when entering the house, a beautiful butterfly in a frame, to the left in the hall. The shadows fell from the butterfly onto the background until I saw that it was not a real butterfly, but painted!

Professor Thompson’s classes in anatomy were always full, to the last seat. We always laughed a lot. He was a gigantic guy, tall as a tree and with an impressively huge head. One time, during his slide presentation, he “happened” to show a slide of an attractive girl with not very many clothes on…oh, how we laughed! He quickly ran another slide, as if nothing had happened.

Last but not least, our dear professor Harry Whittaker. He started out sweeping and cleaning the floors of the institutions. One day he stood by the door, leaning on his broom, listening to the professor teaching histology. He repeated that for some time, until he knew everything! Then he got the chance to be a substitute teacher, when a professor got sick. After that he became a regular professor in Histology! What a saga. He was loved by us all, much because of his warm personality. There were, of course, more wonderful teachers but these are, in my opinion, the most noteworthy.

The medical illustrator at work (Tommy), ca 1975 (photo)

What is the context for your issues with defending your copyright in Sweden (Swedish copyright law, general understanding, etc)?

Sweden lacks education in and a tradition of medical illustration. Because of this lack, clients and authorities have the “advantage" to do what they like. When doing an illustration for the Swedish Läkartidningen (the professional medical journal), they wanted to publish an illustration directly from my original. When I got it back, they had cut it! Just like that.

I confronted the editor, pointed at the cutting and asked for an explanation. He answered: “we have not done that!”

Early, when I presented myself and my profession, many clients were suspicious. They were used to keeping the original artwork. A well-known neurosurgeon showed me “his” drawings, which he had carelessly put behind his sofa in his room, on the floor. He had carved out, bluntly with a knife, the name of the illustrator and put his own name on it, to be credited in the publication. When I opposed, he got very agitated, saying: “This is not the way we are used to doing this!”

Another time an organization known as Riksutställningar (National Exhibitions – Swedish State Administration Authority) was planning to travel around Scandinavia in a multimillion (Swedish crowns) project. At Karolinska Institutet they had a vast room, filled with students, drawing and copying my illustrations.

In an instant I made a police report of all the involved institutions and the authority, and got myself a lawyer. The police delayed the action and arrest, said they couldn’t use my recordings and also forgot to seize the articles (drawings)! The lawyer promised me that this was a “crystal clear case” but, first she wanted money. She took my money and that was it. I never heard from her again.

I can’t believe the surgeon cut the names of the illustrators out! What a difficult situation. What is it like in Sweden now? It seems like a bigger issue for all illustrators, have you talked to other artists about this?

When active I shared experiences with other illustrators. They didn’t seem much interested in the matter. Much because they were not like me, professionally trained at a university. Some were scared and willing to obey their rulers, doctors and bosses. Some were hired/employed and they didn’t care so much what happened or what they did to their creations. Others, like me, were freelancing and had their own business/company and cared more about their rights (copyrights).

Blood circulation of the Bowels (villus), pen & ink, 1983

How did this impact the development of your Studio for Medical Illustrating? How did you get past those challenges?

An authentic trained/educated and certified medical illustrator was a completely new concept in Sweden. The big challenges were that I stuck to professionalism and copyright laws. This challenged my clients/customers more than it challenged me. I tried to inform the clients beforehand. I invited them to lectures about medical illustration, which introduced lots of new information to people. I also rented a booth at a big exhibition in Stockholm, where many healthcare professionals gathered for conferences, to inform them about medical illustration. These people were to become my new clients. All free time I used to hand out flyers and information pamphlets. As a pioneer, as the newspapers liked to call me, you have to have thick soles on your shoes and strong gastrocnemii muscles!

BMCAA would like to express its thanks to Tommy Hellström for taking the time to answer these questions and share his experience in medical illustration over the years. All illustrations used with the author’s permission.


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