Have you ever seen a medical illustration featuring a Black body? Social media users admitted they hadn’t when an image of a Black fetus in a Black woman’s womb went viral this month.
Chidiebere Ibe, 25, is behind the image. The Nigerian medical student, who will enter Kyiv Medical University in Ukraine next month, describes himself as a self-taught medical illustrator. He said he’s spent at least a year learning to draw anatomy, focusing on Black skin every step of the way.
“I wasn’t expecting it to go viral,” Ibe, an aspiring pediatric neurosurgeon, said of the image in an interview. “I was just sticking up for what I believe in, advocating for equality in health through medical illustrations. I made a deliberate action to constantly advocate that there be inclusion of Black people in medical literature.”
He began publishing the images on social media, showing conditions like empyema thoracis and seborrheic eczema on Black skin. Many of the images show skin conditions prevalent with Black people, combating a misrepresentation that often leads to misdiagnosis. The fetus illustration went viral after a Twitter user shared the photo, writing, “I’ve literally never seen a black foetus illustrated, ever.” The post was retweeted more than 50,000 times, and the illustration garnered more than 88,000 “likes” on Instagram and even made its way to TikTok. Ibe drew praise from medical professionals far and wide.
“Little did I understand what the drawing meant to a lot of people. On my LinkedIn, on my Twitter, on my Instagram, I read the comments and they really touched me. I was crying,” Ibe said. “It was amazing to see how good people felt about it. People could see themselves in the drawing.”
Ibe said he became interested in medical illustrations after graduating with an undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of Uyo in Nigeria and preparing to enter medical school. Ibe, who leads creative design at the Association of Future African Neurosurgeons, was working under Dr. Ulrick Sidney Kanmounye at the association to learn anatomy drawing when, he said, he came to a realization: “The drawings I saw aren’t in Black skin.” This launched him into studying medical illustration and focusing on Black skin. A little over a year later, Ibe said, the viral images have landed him an offer to pursue a PhD at a New York university after medical school.
Anatomy drawings have been around for thousands of years, but medical illustration was established as a profession in the United States in the late 19th century, according to the Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI). The lack of Black representation in medical journals and textbooks is no secret, though. A January study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that just 4.5 percent of images in general medicine textbooks show dark skin.
Ni-ka Ford, the chair of AMI’s diversity committee, said this is an extension of medical racism.
“The field is so closely connected to medicine and health care, which have a lot of roots in systemic racism. So that’s a big part of it,” Ford said. “Medical illustrations have historically have always been very predominately white and male centered. … A lot of textbooks have already been published and are already in the rounds around the world and they are very exclusionary in the visual content of people of different backgrounds.”
The few Black medical illustrators in the predominately white field have been working to right the injustice, Ford said. Earlier this year, she and the association’s diversity team launched the #AMIDiversity campaign, urging medical illustrators everywhere to post their work of “nonwhite bodies.” Ford said the association plans to hold the campaign annually. The team is also working on efforts to get more Black people into the field.
Ford, who has been a practicing medical illustrator for four years, said diverse medical illustrators are imperative for making diagnoses. She described medical illustrations as “visual education material” that play a major role in training medical professionals. “It literally affects patient health at the end of the day,” she said.
She added that diverse medical illustrations promote empathy in doctor-patient relationships and, in turn, improve patient care. When patients see reflective medical illustrations in their doctor’s office, it promotes trust and honest communication that are often vital in medical care, Ford said. There are a lot of positive implications for both the medical field and the patient when illustrations reflect different skin types, Ford added. And Ibe agreed.
“I believe everybody deserves to be seen,” he said. “In the U.S. there are a lot of health care disparities. So this is a call to everybody that everyone should matter, and there should be health equality for everybody.”
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Char Adams is a reporter for NBC BLK who writes about race.