Making medical illustrations for all
Meet the medical student tackling representation, one Black illustration at a time
Looking through the spring edition of Momentum, you may have seen illustrations with a detail that makes them stand out from other medical images: Black skin.
You may not know that the illustrator is Chidiebere Ibe — a medical student and aspiring neurosurgeon with a background in graphic design. He gained worldwide attention late last year when he shared an illustration of a Black fetus. The image quickly went viral and has since amassed over 110,000 likes on Instagram and over 2,500 retweets.
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Ibe became a self-taught medical illustrator after connecting with the Association of Future African Neurosurgeons during the COVID-19 lockdowns. He has now become the creative director of the association after its founder suggested he marry his passion for medicine and art.
Ibe’s passion for medicine has deep, personal roots from when his mother was diagnosed with cancer.
“Medicine has been my first career goal as a young child. But the desire became very concrete in 2011 when I lost my mom to cancer. I watched her die, and I was unable to help her,” he shares. “I thought, ‘I wish I was a doctor to help her and address cancer.’ So that particular moment strengthened my desire to be a medical doctor.”
This spark and desire to create change has carried into his career as an illustrator. The face of MS is changing – recent research has shown that Black people have a higher incidence of MS than previously thought. Diversity in medical illustrations could help show the spectrum of diseases and conditions, yet a 2018 study found that only 4.5% of images in medical textbooks depict dark skin.
Through his art, Ibe hopes to normalize the use of Black illustrations and create a community of Black artists who are passionate about producing Black illustrations to address bias and inequity in the healthcare system – an issue he became aware of once he started to draw medical illustrations.
“If you Google some diseases, you won’t see any Black illustrations online,” he says.
He points to diseases such as sickle cell disorder, where three-quarters of cases occur in Africa, but few medical illustrations reflect this. And cancers such as skin cancer can often go undiagnosed in darker skin due to lack of awareness.
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Ibe’s work as an illustrator has only strengthened his resolve to become a doctor.
“It has shaped my perspective towards value for life and value for different people,” he says. “You must love the people, you must love the job. That’s most important. I hope that in medical school, I’m able to transfer that to my colleagues.”
In the meantime, Ibe will continue to advocate for minority populations by shining a light on equity and representation – and he encourages everyone to do the same.
“It’s important to know that the concept of diversity is not that people themselves are diverse, but that systems ought to be diverse,” he says. “Everybody has a key role in addressing bias. For those who are not the minority, you could stand in the dark, right? Or you could act as a platform for people’s voices who have gone through [bias]. We have a role in advocating and giving the minority the platform to lend their experiences and their stories to address the bias in the system.”