drawing of a cross-section of a fetal pig
Women's Health Florence Byrnes


Art for medicine’s sake defined the HMS career of an unsung illustrator

2 min read

Using fine line and striking color, Florence Byrnes turned surgically removed tumors, diseased appendices, and ulcerated feet into enduring works of scientific art. Byrnes was born in Boston in 1875. Unlike those of the HMS faculty members with whom she collaborated, her story isn’t noted in the School’s histories. But her skill is well-preserved in the watercolors and drawings in the Warren Anatomical Museum. As early as 1898, Byrnes was working in HMS’ surgical laboratory, drawing specimens from surgeries performed by such luminaries as Maurice Howe Richardson, MD 1877, Arthur Tracy Cabot, MD 1876, and J. Collins Warren, MD 1866. Warren in particular used Byrnes’ prodigious skill to capture the vivid color of tumors from his cases, and her drawings are present throughout the scientific reports of the Harvard Cancer Commission, which Warren chaired.

Perhaps Byrnes’ most innovative work at HMS was creating original drawings of transverse sections of a pig embryo for Professor of Histology and Human Embryology Charles Sedgwick Minot’s 1903 Laboratory Textbook of Embryology. While never mentioning the artist by name, Minot stated that Byrnes’ drawings demonstrated “a special degree of skill and considerable faculty of plastic imagination.” To make the drawings, Byrnes collaborated with Frederic T. Lewis, MD 1901, then an instructor in histology and embryology. Supplied with hundreds of transverse sections prepared by Lewis, Byrnes reconstructed the pig embryos at enlarged scale (top image) using a microscope and camera lucida. Minot believed these reconstructions were highly useful for student study, given the small scale of the original specimens, and celebrated Lewis’ histological achievement while generally ignoring Byrnes’ artistic one.

colored drawing of an ovarian fibroma
Byrnes' watercolor of a fibroma of the ovary

Drawing specimens under a microscope was a specialized skill of Byrnes’. A review of Alfred H. Gould’s 1906 The Technic of Operations upon the Intestines and Stomach stated that Gould was “fortunate in securing the co-operation of Florence Byrnes whose beautiful histological drawings illustrate the first chapters of the book. …”

illustration of a testicular sarcoma
A watercolor of a testicular sarcoma

Byrnes’ career at HMS ended in 1907, when she received the ultimate academic compliment; she was hired away by the Mayo Clinic’s Louis B. Wilson, who had observed her work in the HMS laboratory of Harold C. Ernst, MD 1880. Despite being a contemporary of celebrated medical artists like Max Brödel and H. F. Aitken and preceding the Brigham’s Mildred Codding at HMS, Byrnes remains relatively obscure. However, one of the historical benefits of being a skilled artist is that your work endures. Beyond the original pieces in the Warren museum, HMS’ publications from the turn of the twentieth century frequently demonstrate Byrnes’ discerning eye and steady hand.

Dominic Hall is curator of the Warren Anatomical Museum in the Center for the History of Medicine at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.

Images: Warren Anatomical Museum, Center for the History of Medicine, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine