Science  /  Biography

Pioneering D.C. Artist Inez Demonet Helped WWI Soldiers Put Their Lives Back Together

Meet the Washington artist who pioneered the field of medical illustration — and helped repair the lives of soldiers returning from WWI.

A District native, Inez Michon Demonet was born in Washington in 1897 and attended the Corcoran School of Art, where her achievements in watercolors made her a star pupil. Her career as a medical illustrator began shortly thereafter, when the United States entered World War I in 1917. Demonet contributed to the war effort in a unique way: knowing her talents, her friends in the military got her a job at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, where she assisted doctors with facial reconstruction surgeries. Some of her earliest medical works are beautifully detailed sketches of these surgeries, showing the processes step-by-step, allowing other surgeons to copy the techniques. Some of the men who returned from the European trenches bore horrific injuries, the sight of which took some getting used to. As Demonet later recounted to the Post:

“I guess I was pretty much of a nuisance at first. The doctors had to spend almost as much time with me as with the patient. But, after I’d been carried out of the room a few times, I made up my mind I’d have to get over my squeamishness. I did it by learning to anticipate the next move of the surgeon. This kept me so entertained I forgot to become woozy.”

Demonet was also learning that medical illustration was a combination of art and science. By observing the surgeries and developing a keen understanding of the human body, Demonet was able to notice and anticipate the kinds of details that medical professionals needed to see. Nowadays, according to the Association of Medical Illustrators, these artists understand the unique nature of their field and receive training in medicine, science, art, design, visual technology, and in theories related to communication and education. In 1917, though, Demonet—and lots of other female artists employed during wartime—were having to pioneer the field themselves.

After the end of the war, Demonet was released from her work at Walter Reed. But having gained the experience with medical illustration, as well as a taste for the paychecks she earned with a full-time job, she was interested in pursuing the career further. She spent some time studying at the School of Industrial Art and Technical Design for Women, a vocational school in New York City, where she perfected her skills. In 1926, a friend happened to notice a job opening at the National Institute of Health, so Demonet jumped at the chance.