Drawing of glial cells of a mouse spinal cord, ink and pencil on paper (1899, all images courtesy NYU’s Grey Art Museum)

Modern medicine is more science than art. But a new exhibition at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, The Beautiful Brain, examines art that has chronicled and enabled scientific progress. In 1906, the Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for research into the structure of the nervous system. Yet Cajal was also a precise draftsman, and The Beautiful Brain suggests that his drawings deserve recognition in their own right.

Self portrait of Santiago Ramón y Cajal (c. 1885)

During his career, Cajal created numerous intricate sketches of nerve cells and fibers. As the gallery’s website explains, his drawings “combine cutting-edge scientific knowledge with consummate draftsmanship” — and some “offer much greater clarity than photographs, so much so that they are still in wide use today.” He often used pencil and ink on off-white paper, but in one sketch, he depicted brain cells in earthy red, yellow, and brown shades.

This week, at NYU’s Silver Center, an appropriately interdisciplinary panel will discuss these drawings, along with other images that sit on the boundary of art and science: for example, CAT scans and MRIs that have become the raw materials of recent artworks. In a wide-ranging conversation called “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty: Practical Aesthetics in Diagnostic Imaging,” two professors of art will join a neurosurgeon and radiologist as they explore the ways that artists and scientists can learn from each other.

When: Thursday, February 22, 7pm
Where: NYU Silver Center, Room 300

More info at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery

Drawing of the pyramidal neuron of the cerebral cortex (1904)

Daniel A. Gross is a former editor at Hyperallergic, and he is a writer and radio producer in New York City. Some of his stories have appeared in The Guardian, 99% Invisible, The Atlantic, and the website...