In gross anatomy, Howard U.'s Ashraf Aziz sees nothing but grace

For Howard University professor Dr. Ashraf Aziz, the study of the human anatomy and art are a perfect fit.
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

At 71, Ashraf Aziz has spent half his life cutting open cadavers and initiating medical students at Howard University into the pungent mysteries of human anatomy. He likes the heads. Extracting the muscles of chewing is one of his specialties. There is little about the body that can faze him anymore.

And yet, here in a little art gallery across the street from the Rosslyn Metro station, this most eloquent and loquacious man of science has been rendered almost speechless.

"I, I'm really a little bit -- " he stammers.

He sounds like a first-year medical student about to be overcome in the embalming room.

"I'm sorry," he says.

Tears well in his eyes.

Surrounded by red-wine-sipping artists and art students on a recent evening, the anatomist is contemplating their renderings of the human body. The nudes not only have no clothes, they also have no skin. The subjects are cadavers -- cadavers from the lab where Aziz teaches gross anatomy.

"I'm so deeply moved," he says. He never thought he would find such kindred spirits.

This exhibit, "Anatomical Art: Dissection to Illustration," is just one outcome of an unusual year-old collaboration between Howard's College of Medicine and the Art Institute of Washington. The cross-disciplinary ping-pong continues strong in both directions:

There is talk of enlisting animators from the art school to enhance lessons on locomotion at the medical school. An Art Institute sculptor presented Aziz with some fancy modeling clay, which he used to take an impression from the inside of a chimpanzee skull as part of his comparative chew-muscle research.

Meanwhile, at the art school, to such curriculum standards as "life drawing" -- portraits of live, nude models -- has been added the informal option of, well, dead drawing, in the cadaver lab. Some artists have taken to exploring -- and memorizing the Latin names of -- complex muscle groups that invisibly influence the supple motions of the living torso.

Perhaps most striking has been seeing the life and career of one of Washington's singularly passionate scientists come full circle.

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