Intended for healthcare professionals


The blackboard anatomist

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: (Published 10 February 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h345
  1. Anna Harris, postdoctoral researcher, Maastricht University, PO Box 616, 6200 MD Maastricht, Netherlands
  1. a.harris{at}

Since the early 19th century blackboard teaching has been an important practice in medical schools, building on the work of celebrated artistic anatomists such as London’s Charles Bell.1 I was lucky enough to be taught by another great blackboard anatomist, Peter Lisowski. As first year medical students at the University of Tasmania we would enter his lectures with only a blank blackboard in front of us—no printouts or PowerPoint slides. In a shaking but precise hand he would start to draw, building layers of bone, muscles, connective tissue, nerves, arteries, and veins on the board. Through rubbings, shadings, and other traces of chalk, he would draw from memory the part of the body that he wanted to teach us that day.

These blackboard drawings helped us understand more about the body that we were dissecting in the labs nearby. It was a different experience to looking at the drawings in our textbooks. The three dimensional body came alive for us.

Blackboard teaching still occurs in schools around the world where resources are scarce and funds to supply new teaching instruments are limited. In many resource rich countries, however, blackboards are fast disappearing. Increasingly, anatomy is taught with computers, either online or using software. There has been a call to prevent the blackboard’s obsolescence, not only in anatomy classrooms but in universities more widely.2 3 4 Mathematics professors also want to hold onto their blackboards—sociologists have observed an essential relationship between the abstract concepts and methods of advanced maths and the chalk drawings used to represent them.5 Similarly in anatomy the materials used for teaching shape how students imagine and inhabit the body. There is a beauty in blackboard teaching that is lost on the computer; in the way it is told through the hand, slightly different each time, in gestures and lines of different weight.4

I have no photos of Lisowski’s blackboards—we didn’t have smart phones or compact cameras in those days. His drawings were ephemeral, rubbed off at the end of each class. Unlike 16th century anatomical engravings, blackboard artistry is not bound in books or archived in museums. Yet I have never forgotten the bodies drawn and imagined in those lectures. This for me was the fantastic voyage that I had dreamed of when I signed up for medical school.


Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h345


  • Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.


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