Klaus Hentschel (Univ. Stuttgart):

Visual Cultures in Science, Technology and Medicine – A new multilayered approach

A brief summary of Klaus Hentschel:    Visual Cultures in Science & Technology. A Comparative History, Oxford Univ Press, Oct. 2014, 512 pp., 126 b/w images, 16 color pl. ISBN 13:9780198717874.

Fig. 1: A visual analogy between a fish and a ship’s hull (1586) and an oil-painting of a mineral cabinet (1813): two examples of visual cultures in science & technology



When ‘visual studies’ started out as a movement in art history, it was a rebellion against the traditional distinction between high and low art. This may have been necessary at the time, in order to create the freedom and intellectual space for the study of other cultural strands, from cinema to cookbooks, but it blinded some  protagonists to the very existence of a “high-low distinction in visual culture.”  Rather than studying advertisement, television or comics, I think it is important to ask whether there are specifics in the way that scientists, technologists and physicians use visual representations, whether one can speak of “visual cultures” in some (sub)disciplines of science, and if so, what defines and sets them apart from each other and from other visual cultures in human societies.

I share the frustration over lost opportunities to come to grips with the conceptual foundations of this field, but not the doomsday feelings about its future. I suggest we return to a solid, sharp definition of ‘visual cultures’ as our object, and of ‘visual studies’ as the methodological arena. This might counteract the recent impasse and revitalize this heterogeneous field, which some of its pioneers have started to pronounce as dying or degenerating because it still has not managed to reach agreement on its goals, scope and methodology, with an anything-goes mentality reigning and no coherence in sight.

First of all, we need to avoid the pitfalls of pie-eyed microstudies. One way to achieve this is to attempt a parallel analysis of many comparable cases. A bottom-up approach, starting out from the material – rather than from high-flung categories imported from Derrida, Latour,  or Mitchell – would circumvent the risks of forced analyses. Analytic categories motivated by the sources (actors’ categories wherever available) are preferable. Do we still aim at a generalizability beyond the pool of selected cases? Do we still achieve a context-sensitive, cautious structural description of historical processes? Many of us have given up – too early, I think.

Generalizable patterns are most likely to be found on the medium scale of time and level of abstraction. Alluding to the same phenomenon, the famous Annales historian Fernand Braudel remarked: “history does not repeat itself, but it has its habits.” The strength of pioneering books in the field of visual studies– such as Svetlana Alpers’s Art of Describing (1985) about Dutch art, optics, cartography, science, technology and culture in the 17th century– is precisely that they dared to go beyond local microstudies and ended up with suggestions for patterns beyond the limited confines of ‘art’ or ‘science’ from within their material. This is what Clifford Geertz meant when he urged us “not to generalize across cases but to generalize within them.”

Fig. 2:  Roger Hayward at work on a large 3D-model of the lunar surface (1934) – he also illustrated books by the chemist Linus Pauling and designed astronomical observatories. [copyrightLos Angeles Public Library, photograph collection],


To cope with this, I developed my notion of nine historiographic layers of visual science cultures, based on a synthesis of a myriad case studies. About a hundred are presented in the book, many more are referenced, ranging from geology to medical imaging, from stereochemistry to astrophysics, and from  metallography to geometrodynamics. My claim is that their historical analysis should delve into all of these layers, not just focus on a few of them as is normally done. Only then can we hope to achieve a ‘thick description’ of visual cultures.

The following nine facets seem to me to be present throughout visual cultures in science, medicine and technology since the early-modern period:


1. highly developed skills of pattern recognition

2. mastery of visual thinking (anschauliches Denken – Rudolf Arnheim)

3. practical training in such skills (cf. Eugene Ferguson)

4. high prestige of atlases and scientific plates (cf. Daston & Galison)

5. obsessive occupation with improving the quality of flat and 3D representations

6. broader context of specialized printing establishments or media experts (draftsmen, engravers, photographers, model makers, ...(see the database DSI)

7. interest in the physiology of visual perception and in related research instruments

8. aesthetic pleasure in scientific procedures & image production, and finally

9. a fusion of profession and pastime, of labor and leisure.

These nine layers are, on the one hand, simply different aspects of visual cultures. All of them need to be looked at to gain a holistic view of these cultures. On the other hand, each of these layers also defines a different historiographic angle of inquiry from which we can approach these cultures as historians. Rather than focusing on just one or two of these layers (as is typical of ‘visual studies’ nowadays), we should tackle the whole package.

Fig. 3: Hand-colored woodcut from U. Pinder: Epiphaniae medicorum (1506), Wellcome Library, London M0007286, depicting a physician demonstrating uroscopic analysis to a student. They are surrounded by 20 urine flasks (each specimen is differently tinted) with abbreviated captions for the different diagnoses.


Skills in pattern recognition (level 1), for instance, lead straight to considerations well known among Gestalt psychologists and cognitive scientists but relatively uncommon among historians of science. I would argue that we need to delve much deeper into these aspects to understand one of the essential strengths of visual science cultures: I.e., the ability to rapidly discern recurrent features and to discriminate them from diffuse background noise. Such is only possible with outright mastery in the skills of pattern recognition and visual thinking (2). This, in turn, has to be formed and trained, either in long and repeated practice sessions at the microscope, telescope or computer tomograph, and/or by studying carefully crafted atlases, posters, slides or 3D-models (levels 4 and 5, resp. figs. 4).


3D modelling of proteins on computerResearcher with 3-D model of protein

Figs. 4: 3D modeling of proteins at the computer and a researcher holding 3-D model of protein, with computer screen of 3-D images of proteins. Both from the Collection of Wellcome Images, London, image call no.B0000386  & B0000388.







Thus science teaching (3) also becomes an integral part of our package. The makers of these plates (6) and their interplay with scientists also deserve deeper study. The aesthetic pleasure of working with visual representations (8) – quite frequently expressed by protagonists as an aside or in private correspondence, – or annual beauty contests among electron micrographs, for instance, show that aesthetics is not just a side-line but an integral part of scientific practice within visual cultures in science, technology and medicine. This gives new biographical perspectives on pioneers of visual science cultures (9), e.g., on the importance of their backgrounds (many came from artisanal families or studied at polytechnics with intense drawing instruction) and hobbies, e.g., photography, landscape painting, sculpture.

Fig. 5: John Archibald Wheeler at the blackboard. This pioneer of geometrodynamics started out as a student of engineering and took drawing lessons and enjoyed drawing throughout his life, even during lectures. From the cover of J.A. Wheeler & Kenneth Ford: Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics, New York: Norton, 1998.    [photo copyright  Special Collections, Princeton Univ. Library]


A few pertinent weblinks (many more are given in the book):

http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780198717874.do Klaus Hentschel: Visual Cultures in Science & Technology. A Comparative History, Oxford: Oxford Univ Press,. 2014, 512 pp., 126 b/w images, 16 color pl.,  ISBN 13:9780198717874;

www.uni-stuttgart.de/hi/gnt/hentschel homepage of Prof. Dr. Klaus Hentschel  


Images & Illustrators:

www.uni-stuttgart.de/hi/gnt/dsi  Stuttgart Database of Scientific Illustrators 1450-1950 (DSI) with more than 8,800 entries (Nov.~2014) and 20 search fields

www.uni-stuttgart.de/hi/gnt/dsi/websites/websites.php , on natural history images, illustrators & photographers


General Historiography and other Frameworks:

www.eikones.ch/ , and further links given there

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iconic_turn  , en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visual_culture , de.wikipedia.org/wiki/bildwissenschaft  and further links given there

www.psychology.tcd.ie/other/Ruth_Byrne/mental_models/theory.html  on mental models


Examples of visual cultures in science, technology and medicine:

staff.science.uva.nl/~leo/lego/linkages.html  and web.mat.bham.ac.uk/C.J.Sangwin/

howroundcom/contents.html, on visual thinking in technology


vesalius.northwestern.edu  on Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica 1543

images.umdl.umich.edu/w/wantz/vesd1.htm  with plates from his oeuvre 1543

special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/oct2002.html, on Fuchs’s Great Herbal 1542

www.epaves.corsaires.culture.fr/mobile/en/uc/02_04   on early-modern shipwrightry

www.kuttaka.org/~JHL/Main.html  for Lambert’s collected works

www.colorsystem.com/?lang=en and irtel.uni-mannheim.de/colsys/  on historical color systems and color encoding schemes

special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/nov2009.html Darwin and others on the expression of emotions

www.wcume.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Tsung.pdf  the history of ultrasound

www.zum.de/stueber/haeckel/kunstformen/natur.html on Ernst Haeckel



legacy.mblwhoilibrary.org/leuckart/ on zoological wall charts

www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/American/resource/1241  and

geologyinart. blogspot.de/  on geology and art

www.minrec.org/  mineralogical record of collections, collectors, samples

www.geh.org/fm/stm/htmlsrc4/teneriffe_sum00001.html  on Charles Piazzi Smyth ‘s Teneriffe photographs

www.londonstereo.com/modern_stereos_moons.html  on stereoscopes of the moon

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anaglyph_3D  on anaglyph 3D images

courses.ncssm.edu/gallery/collections/toys/opticaltoys.htm  on optical gadgets

libweb5.princeton.edu/visual_materials/maps/websites/thematic-maps/contents.html  on historic maps

www.sorby.org.uk/hcsorby.shtml  on Henry C. Sorby

vlp.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/experiments  on the kymograph in physiology

www.micrographicarts.com and www.denniskunkel.com , on electron microscopy images

scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/SPT/v8n2/hennig.html  on scanning tunneling microscopy 1980--90


Rohrer.htm, an interview with Binnig and Rohrer and various papers

www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/scivis/ ,  NSF International Visualization Challenge

www.fonar.com/fonar_timeline.htm , the history of MRI in a timeline



www.nature.com/physics/looking-back/lauterbur/index.html  on Lauterbur’s article from 1973


www.meb.uni-bonn.de/epileptologie/cms/upload/homepage/lehnertz/CT1.pdf  with a lot of information on CT scans and their history



and www.mathworks.de/products/demos/image/ipexblind/ipexblind.html  on deblurring algorithms


www.lefevre.darkhorizons.org/articles/proctutorial2.htm, a tutorial

on CCD imaging, and starizona.com/acb/ccd/ccd.aspx  also on CCD imaging

messier.obspm.fr/xtra/Bios/rosse.html and www.maa.clell.de/Messier/E/m051.html



heritage.stsci.edu/ ,  the Hubble Heritage Page , and on ‘false coloring’:


solarsystem.dlr.de/Missions/express/second/09.02.2005.shtml a 3D video of the Martian surface

www.mpa-garching.mpg.de/galform/data_vis/index.shtml ,   millennium simulation


Fig. 6: Leonhard Fuchs; De historia stirpivm commentarii... , Basel 1542, pp. 514f., from the Wellcome-Collection London, call no. L0051248

Fig. 7: Robert Hooke, Micrographia, 1665, fold-out copper engraving of a flea, from the Wellcome Collection of Images, call no.  L0043503

Gautier d'Agoty, mezzotint ecorche female torso, back, 1746Recognising familiar faces

Fig. 8: Two techniques of showing the inside of the human body in quasi 3D-manner   (a) Gautier d'Agoty, mezzotint print of a female torso, back, 1746 , from the Wellcome Image Collection, call no.  L0019727, and  (b)  Nuclear magnetic resonance imaging 2001. This MRI scan shows the regions of the brain involved in recognizing familiar faces, Wellcome image no. B0003533 Credit Mark Lythgoe & Chloe Hutton.
All these Wellcome images are copyrighted work available under Creative Commons.


End of the summary of Klaus Hentschel:    Visual Cultures in Science & Technology. A Comparative History, Oxford Univ Press, Oct. 2014, 512 pp., 126 b/w images, 16 color pl. ISBN 13:9780198717874.