I love the article “Histochemistry: A Case of Unappreciated Beauty,” by René Buesa. I could look at slides for hours and often wish their images were hanging on my walls! Histology is also informed by many scientific principles, which René has written so much about.
Below, René discusses the intersection of art and science in histology:
RJ: Let me put it this way: Vermeer (the famous XVII century Dutch painter) distilled his own oils, especially from lilacs, to dissolve his powdered dyes without the knowledge of what these dyes were really made of. Once dissolved, he executed extremely detailed and beautiful paintings today worth millions. Histology started similarly, by trying different dyes and chemicals to find out which were able to stain a particular structure of diagnostic interest. Much has been learnt since. S. W. Thompson, in his classical book, attempts to explain the interactions between tissue and cell chemical components and those in the solutions used to stain them.
All that being said, the “average” histotech (and the pathologist, as well) knows what stain to use to target a structure of interest even when the involved chemistry is ignored. The result may be a beautiful, stained section. Is that “science” or is it “art,” as Vermeer’s? I am inclined to point to the latter. This refers to Histochemistry, but what about the “monotonic” immunohistochemistry (usually H&E, with its “brown” and monochromatic dull results)? Here science reigns and is understood because of the biological antigen-antibody principle.
So, depending on what we are referring to, you can say that histology is both science and art, although a beautifully stained section, with vibrant colors, regardless of what they are staining, can be seen more as a “work of art” than the result of a chemical reaction (which at the end it is).
Where is “the art” then? In the histotech able to bring about the color? We all know that the very same procedures followed by different histotechs do not always come out the same. Some are more artists than others.
Summing up: when the final quality of the procedure, be it a section or a stain, depends more on the histotech’s ability than on the chemistry involved, that is more art than science.