Good Art is … a deadly beauty

Lyme Disease Borrellia

Borrelia burgdorferi – a spirochete transmitted to Humans via ticks, produces Lyme Disease


Can we regard those things which cause pain and suffering as beautiful?

Some of the beasties represented here have been too closely associated with my family for comfort over the years but the enhanced imagery by medical illustrators makes these deadly harbingers of disease fascinating rather than frightening.

My daughter was diagnosed with the fairy floss like Borrelia burgdorferi after a trip to Germany last year and had to undergo some serious chemo to remove it after oral antibiotics didn’t work.

She did get asked to go on the science show, Catalyst, recently which was a positive experience.  Luckily she is now looking so much better, but other people with Lyme-like symptoms in Australia often don’t fare so well.

The official line in Australia is that the species of spirochete (the group of bacteria) which cause Lyme disease isn’t found here so those people who have been bitten by ticks and suffer Lyme-like symptoms are not given any particular treatment and diagnostic tests for Borrelia are also very problematic. At least Catalyst gave the subject a good scientific airing.

The divine purple, fluffy bobbles below crept into my son’s bloodstream shortly after he was born and resulted in meningitis when he was about 3 weeks old. Miraculously he had no major legacy except a problem where the bug landed in a joint in his arm and nuked the growth plate, meaning he had to have surgery a couple of years ago.  I can look on it now with intrigue rather than loathing, but only because we were incredibly lucky.


The floaty, jellyfish like space ships below are a traveller’s friend – not. I have had and ‘diagnosed’ giardia in most people based on their symptoms because the effect of the protozoa can be very up and down. The image on the bottom left shows how the beady parasite clamps onto the small intestine sucks up its juices and then moves on to the next spot. The illustrator enhanced picture on the top left shows the underneath sucker in a deep green. No wonder it gives you stomach cramps and makes you feel generally awful.

On the bottom right, the deliciously curling pink of Campylobacter is another little gut surprise you don’t want. Luckily I haven’t had this but kids, mums and dads – if you go to a farm and play with lovely little lambs, remember to wash your hands before you eat lunch!


Luckily I also haven’t had any encounter with nature’s strange beauty shown in the next couple of images.  Ebola virus, seen here engulfing a cell in swirls of green and blue in a demonstration of a suffocating virulence. Then there are the apparently benign little lime clumps of Yersinia pestis (aka The Plague) clinging to the deep purple parts of a flea.
Either of these shimmering pathogens are definitely worth staying as far away from as you can.


Just to balance out the fear you might have that these bugs are out there and there is little we can do – here are some uplifting images of the body taking a stand in your defense!
The bright yellow globes of Staphylococcus aureus, (and not just any Staph but the nasty MRSA) and the pink lollypop Klebsiella are both about to be gobbled up by a lovely purple / blue neutrophil – one of our super white blood cells.

The enhanced visualisation of bacteria and viruses through electron microscopy is the true meeting of art and science, but the beauty we might choose to see is nature’s rather than any projection by the artist.

The medical illustrator’s only aim in enhancing colour or shape, texture and form, is to represent with clarity the data made known through measurement in a way that can enable visualisation to build understanding of the world around us and beyond.

In some cases the illustrator may have to build a model based on understood data and information.  In other cases there is visual data – such as the electron microscopy images shown here which provide the artist with a base image in grey shade. The artist then enhances through colour and definition in a way which allow the researcher greater insight to the pathogens and their interactions with the body.

In my veterinary studies I made so many drawings of simple shapes and estimated forms, mainly from light microscope studies, of what these pathogens looked like. Against these images, our rods and ovoids and mere squiggles of viruses, look naive and very last century.

No doubt the medical illustrator today remains a rather unsung part of the research team just as the botanical illustrators of the 19th and 20th centuries were. In time I hope more of their stories will be told for their work has enormous value to science knowledge and engagement.

So which of the wonderful catalogue of images from the Public Health Library in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do you like best?

For more detail about the CDC for the images used in case you’d like to know more about these little beauties please read on – I know you want to..

… or for more superb images, so you can admire the hand of the medical illustrator, you can browse the catalogue at

Post also inspired by the FutureLearn Course on Big Data Visualisation I’m doing at the moment online thanks to the Queensland University of Technology.

Lyme Disease
An enlarged view of PHIL 13166, this digitally-colorized scanning electron micrograph (SEM) depicts a grouping of numerous Gram-negative, anaerobic, Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, which had been derived from a pure culture.
This pathogenic organism is responsible for causing the illness, Lyme disease, a zoonotic, vector-borne, ailment, transmitted to humans by way of a tick bite.B. burgdorferi belongs to a group of bacteria, called spirochetes, whose appearance resembles a coiled spring.
B. burgdorferi bacteria can infect several parts of the body, producing different symptoms at different times. Not all patients with Lyme disease will have all symptoms, and many of the symptoms can occur with other diseases as well. If you believe you may have Lyme disease, it is important that you consult your health care provider for proper diagnosis.
Photo credit Janice Haney Carr
Strep B
This illustration depicts a three-dimensional (3D) computer-generated image of a group of Clindamycin-resistant Group-BStreptococcus (GBS), also known as S. agalactiae, bacteria, which were arranged in chains. The artistic recreation was based upon scanning electron micrographic imagery. If you look carefully, you’ll be able to see a number of these organisms undergoing the process of cell division along the long axis of their respective chains.
Group-B Streptococcus (GBS) is a type of bacteria that can cause severe illnesses in people of all ages, ranging from bloodstream infections (sepsis) and pneumonia, to meningitis and skin infections. GBS is sometimes found in the digestive, urinary, and reproductive tracts. Most of the time, we don‘t need to worry about group-B strep—but if you‘re pregnant, it can cause serious problems for your newborn.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Medical Illustrator
This scanning electron micrograph (SEM) revealed the ventral surface of a Giardia muris trophozoite that had settled atop the mucosal surface of a rat’s intestine. Note the microvilli, which can be seen in the background, as tiny rounded structures that are approximately 0.15 microns in diameter. The Giardia‘s ventral adhesive disk resembles a suction cup, where overlapping microtubules in the cytoplasm form a number-6-shaped figure. The edge of the suction cup, called the ventrolateral flange, partially encircles the adhesive disk and is absent posteriorly where a ventral pair of flagella emerges from above, dorsal to the disk. Giardia muris has four pairs of flagella that are responsible for the organism’s motility. The adhesive disk facilitates adherence to the intestinal surface.
The protozoan Giardia causes the diarrheal disease called giardiasis. Giardia species exist as free-swimming (by means of flagella) trophozoites, and as egg-shaped cysts. It is the cystic stage, which facilitates the survival of these organisms under harsh environmental conditions. The cyst is considered the infective form, and disease is often transmitted by drinking contaminated water. As depicted in these SEMs, in the intestine, cysts are stimulated to liberate trophozoites. Cysts can be shed in fecal material, and can, thereafter, remain viable for several months in appropriate environmental conditions. Cysts can also be transferred directly from person-to-person, as a result of poor hygiene.
Dr. Stan Erlandsen
This scanning electron micrograph (SEM) revealed the presence of circulars lesions that were left on the intestinal surface, as a result of the tight adhesion produced by the ventral adhesive disk of Giardia sp. intestinal protozoa. The dorsal, or upper surfaces of several trophozoites could be seen in this figure, but the protozoan in the center of the photograph is laying upside-down, on its dorsal side, revealing an example of the ventral adhesive disk responsible for the circular lesions.
This illustration depicts a three-dimensional (3D) computer-generated image of a cluster of drug-resistant Campylobacter bacteria, which were arranged in a mass of curly-cue shaped organisms. The artistic recreation was based upon scanning electron micrographic imagery.
Campylobacter usually causes diarrhea (often bloody), fever, and abdominal cramps, and sometimes causes serious complications such as temporary paralysis. Physicians rely on drugs like ciprofloxacin and azithromycin for treating patients with severe disease. Resistant infections sometimes last longer. Campylobacter has begun showing resistance to both of these drugs.
Campylobacter is estimated to cause approximately 1.3 million infections, 13,000 hospitalizations, and 120 deaths each year in the United States. CDC is seeing resistance to ciprofloxacin in almost 25% of Campylobacter tested and resistance to azithromycin in about 2%. Costs are expected to be higher for resistant infections because antibiotic-resistant Campylobacter infections sometimes last longer.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Medical Illustrator
Ebola Virus
Produced by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), this digitally-colorized scanning electron micrograph (SEM) depicts numerous filamentous Ebola virus particles (blue) budding from a chronically-infected VERO E6 cell (yellow-green).
Ebola is one of numerous Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers. It is a severe, often fatal disease in humans and nonhuman primates (such as monkeys, gorillas, and chimpanzees).
Ebola is caused by infection with a virus of the family Filoviridae, genus Ebolavirus. When infection occurs, symptoms usually begin abruptly. The first Ebolavirus species was discovered in 1976 in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo near the Ebola River. Since then, outbreaks have appeared sporadically.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)
Produced by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), this digitally-colorized scanning electron micrograph (SEM) depicts a number of yellow-colored Yersinia pestis bacteria that had gathered on the proventricular spines of a Xenopsylla cheopis flea. These spines line the interior of the proventriculus, a part of the flea’s digestive system. The Y. pestis bacterium is the pathogen that causes bubonic plague. Please see the Flickr link below, for additional NIAID photomicrographs of various bacteria.
Plague is a disease that affects humans and other mammals. It is caused by the bacterium, Yersinia pestis. Humans usually get plague after being bitten by a rodent flea that is carrying the plague bacterium, or by handling an animal infected with plague. Plague is infamous for killing millions of people in Europe during the Middle Ages. Today, modern antibiotics are effective in treating plague. Without prompt treatment, the disease can cause serious illness or death. Presently, human plague infections continue to occur in the western United States, but significantly more cases occur in parts of Africa and Asia.
Produced by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), this digitally-colorized scanning electron micrograph (SEM) depicts a blue-colored, human white blood cell (WBC) known specifically as a neutrophil, interacting with two pink-colored, rod-shaped, multidrug-resistant (MDR) Klebsiella pneumoniae bacteria, which are known to cause severe hospital-acquired, nosocomial infections. Please see the Flickr link below for additional NIAID photomicrographs of various bacteria.
Produced by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), this digitally-colorized scanning electron micrograph (SEM) depicts a number of yellow-colored, spheroid-shaped, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria in a chain-like configuration, which were in the process of being ingested by a type of white blood cell (WBC) known as a neutrophil that was colored blue. Please see the Flickr link below for additional NIAID photomicrographs of various bacteria.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) causes a range of illnesses, from skin and wound infections to pneumonia and bloodstream infections that can cause sepsis and death. Staph bacteria, including MRSA, are one of the most common causes of healthcare-associated infections.
Resistance to methicillin and related antibiotics (e.g., nafcillin, oxacillin) and resistance to cephalosporins are of concern. CDC estimates 80,461 invasive MRSA infections and 11,285 related deaths occurred in 2011. An unknown but much higher number of less severe infections occurred in both the community and in healthcare settings.
Klebsiella is a type of Gram-negative bacteria that can cause different types of healthcare-associated infections, including pneumonia, bloodstream infections, wound or surgical site infections, and meningitis. Increasingly, Klebsiella bacteria have developed antimicrobial resistance, most recently to the class of antibiotics known as carbapenems. Klebsiella bacteria are normally found in the human intestines (where they do not cause disease). They are also found in human stool (feces). In healthcare settings, Klebsiella infections commonly occur among sick patients who are receiving treatment for other conditions. Patients whose care requires devices like ventilators (breathing machines) or intravenous (vein) catheters, and patients who are taking long courses of certain antibiotics are most at risk for Klebsiella infections. Healthy people usually do not get Klebsiella infections.

31 thoughts on “Good Art is … a deadly beauty

  1. Fascinating and scary. I also had to go to Germany to have Lyme disease diagnosed as they were befuddled both in Greece and France. I had antibiotics and now am on Cowdens protocol (herbal stuff). It’s a bugger to get rid of.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your blog was fascinating, and the images of the nasties were surreally beautiful. Fancy such beauty having such tragic consequences. I saw the Catalyst programme and wish i could remember seeing your daughter.
    But may be even more interesting are the discussions in the comments! Such a varied number of issues raised.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Anne thanks so much – I’m glad you like the post. My daughter was the singing one – it was nice that they put some of the important points into the show. I’m glad there was interest here – also I wanted to profile the illustrators & artists like you Anne who add so much to science understanding.


  3. Very interesting, Chas. And they are beautiful in their deadly sort of way. Spending a great deal of time outdoors, Giardia and Lyme Disease are always a concern. Having served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa, I also found the ebola of interest. Thanks for the overview. –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Curt – thanks for the comment and it’s interesting to hear you’ve had that experience in West Africa – 3 of my close colleagues in the UK were from Nigeria and I would love to visit their part of the world sometime.


  4. Wow, this was fascinating! I had never seen some of the organisms before and they are amazing looking. A few years ago, the National Academy of Sciences gift shop was selling soft sculpture (okay, stuffed toys) of a number of different viruses. I’m glad your daughter has recovered. Lyme is nasty.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Lisa thanks for stopping by. I hope she is out the woods – there was a delay in the treatment so there’s some evidence that it can recur – it certainly isn’t s nice thing. I love the soft toy idea – the gift for the child with everything.


  5. Interesting- I have never thought about t this before- questions of the medical illustrator as artist in the same way as the early botanical illustrators. Also good to see image of the bug that gave my son meningitis when he was 9 months old and left him profoundly deaf. Fascinating and deadly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Francesca – Meningitis is truly unforgiving. We were told the best case scenario was deafness and tried to prepare for that. My mum had taught with the VSDC for many years so we knew we would have plenty of support. Perhaps because my son was so young when he contracted the infection he was ok – the medicos said the skull plates were yet to fuse so were able to expand with the swelling. We were so very lucky all round.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Your mother may have taught my son who is now 36. We only use sign language. That best case scenario has been a change to all our lives. The deaf don’t do so well in this country.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That could be – she was definitely there 30 years ago because I had started uni then. I’m not sure what services are like these days but I thought that the UK had much better integration and a support network – especially where we lived in Berkshire.


      • Things are slow to change here, especially for Auslan or Signed English users. There is a theoretical acceptance of the deaf, but on the whole, integration is a farce. Jack, one of the smartest people I know, works like a slave as a bricklayer, often getting ripped off by big housing companies. Things like facebook and texting have helped the deaf considerably with communication with the hearing. He has two hearing children, who sign fluently and speak and read so well, but the disability is a generational one. As the children approach their teenage years, they have significant gaps in knowledge of the world, which comes from incidental round table chat and so on. That disease has affected me for all these years and I haven’t spoken about it for a long time. You, Chas, have unearthed my passion. ( I also have a post grad in Special Education, hearing Disability, but decided not to work in the field at all)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Francesca -it is good food for thought. When I worked in the UK civil service we had hearing and visually impaired colleagues fully integrated in the workplace. Can’t say I’ve noticed the same since being back in Oz now you mention it. Quite ridiculous given the capabilities of people like your son – must be incredibly difficult.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, and likewise, yuck! That little giardia beastie is a familiar foe, been there, done that. And I’ve also been totally neutrophil negative at one point, resulting in a hasty visit to the isolation unit at the local hospital and massive IV infusions of antibiotics. I *love* my neutrophils 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Whoa that is very scary to have your neutrophils wiped out. Immunology was always one of my favourite areas to study and teach. Although we are vulnerable beings the fact that our immune system battles out everything we are assailed with on a daily basis is so extraordinary. We should definitely all love our neutrophils. <:


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