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In memoriam: Ray Guillery

7 April 2017 brought with it the sad passing of Ray Guillery FRS, celebrated neurophysiologist and neuroanatomist, world leader in thalamo-cortical communication, and Dr Lee’s professor of anatomy and fellow of Hertford College, Oxford, from 1984 to 1996. Dr Lizzie Burns kindly shares her memories of working with Ray on his final book, The Brain as a Tool, for which she was the illustrator.

I first met Ray by chance when I ran a workshop for the ‘Cortex Club’ inspired by the Nobel Prize winning Oxford neuroscientist, Sir Charles Scott Sherrington. The workshop used Sherrington’s poetic words to inspire new connections and promote neuroplasticity – or in the words of Sherrington, to ‘teach the best attitude as to what is yet known’. Ray warmly embraced the opportunity to use modelling material to explore making structures of the brain and asked if I might be interested in creating some illustrations for his book: The Brain as a Tool.

Out of all my collaborations over the past 15 years combining science and art, this involved the most continuous dialogue and engendered the most enduring relationship. Ray was keen to share some of the vast, detailed knowledge he had accrued during his lifetime studying the brain. As someone who had already been creating some artwork about the brain for the Medical Research Council over a decade ago, this sparked a continued fascination for me too, and so I relished this opportunity to learn from Ray and committed myself to creating illustrations. I hoped I could bring to life the beauty of our most complex and essential organ.

While rigorous, Ray also showed that curiosity and playfulness are essential in how we engage with the world

Ray started by showing me some preserved and plastinated brains he used for teaching medical students and neuroscientists. We both shared a strong admiration for the observation and beauty from the old masters of neuroscience, including the Spanish scientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, and I was fascinated to see the beautiful drawings from Swiss anatomist Albert von Kolliker who had studied in Ray’s birth country of Germany. We also shared distaste for so many current medical illustrations with their airbrushed, artificial, and life-less feel. Rather than looking at illustrations from others, we instead looked at the real specimen, both preserved and via photos of the fresh human brain.

I started enthusiastically sketching what I could see, and Ray kindly guided me towards improvement with great patience and encouragement. They started scratchy and hazy but with time, these images evolved to become stronger and 3-dimensional in feel, though still delicate in appearance. He started to help me see with photos of specimens that no single image would show each area in the way he knew it could be, and that the book would need an artist to render each area together in one holistic image. In Ray’s mind, he knew how they all related and how the perfect specimen would appear. Each image I started to draw was corrected and shared, and we would send them back and forth and meet up to discuss. As Ray had such an eye for detail, getting to the point where he was satisfied and pleased meant a lot. Ray studied vision, and felt the illustrations would make a difference to his book. I hope they do.

Reading Ray’s book while trying to render the exquisite beauty and complexity of the brain gave me an excited feeling of glimpsing the mind-boggling complexity of circuits, connections, and comparisons being made in any particular moment of time. I found a new appreciation for this particular part of our body which is so hidden. We can hardly comprehend what we are, and so it felt right that the images were not simple or quick to create but born of so much thought and care, the same kind that Ray gave in writing his book. While rigorous, Ray also showed that curiosity and playfulness are essential in how we engage with the world, to see what we are in fresh new ways. I wanted to share some of Ray’s beautiful drawings and include a playful image he drew of looking at the world upside down through your legs. He explained there’s a reason the world looks different this way up, and I hope you can enter his book and see the world afresh too.

Featured image credit: An inferior and sagittal view of the human brain by Dr Lizzie Burns. Used with permission.

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