When you are felled by chest congestion and seek a remedy, chances are your mind conjures a gaggle of blobby little green men who represent mucus and might serve as spokespeople for the decongestant Mucinex. The hideous yet adorable creatures appear in television commercials as something like frenemies of the sick — unwanted guests who set up camp in your body and also explain your illness to you in gravelly Teamster voices. It might be more accurate to call these animated characters “spokes-homunculi.” Homunculi is the plural of homunculus, which is a big word for any very small humanoid creature, and artistic renderings of such beings have historically made their way into scientific and medical illustrations.

Fritz Kahn (1888-1968), a German Jewish physician and popular science writer, embraced the metaphor of the homunculus as an educational and artistic tool. Kahn produced numerous pamphlets and books filled with images that depict the body as a mechanized factory. His ideas and longstanding influence on design and pharmaceutical marketing continue to pervade visual culture. Kahn’s projections influenced instructional filmstrips about hygiene and disease made for schoolchildren and military recruits during the middle part of the 20th century, as well as modern-day infographics and internet memes. Michael Sappol, a fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in Uppsala, addresses Khan’s legacy from an historical and philosophical point of view in the recent book Body Modern: Fritz Kahn, Scientific Illustration, and the Homuncular Subject, published by the University of Minnesota Press.

Kahn was born in Halle an der Saale, Germany, to mother Hedwig and father Arthur, a doctor and author. The family lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, and then Manhattan when Kahn was young, but in 1895 he returned to Germany with his mother. Kahn studied medicine at the University of Berlin, and from 1914 to 1922 he worked as a surgeon, gynecologist, and obstetrical aide at a clinic; he served as a medic in World War I. In the 1930s he moved to Palestine and later to France, but when World War II broke out he was interred there as an enemy alien. Once released, he made his way back to Manhattan by way of Spain and Portugal. “Kahn was a diasporic Jew,” Sappol writes. “He grew up in Germany and the United States; he lived more than half his life outside Germany. Like every member of the Jewish diaspora, he faced in two directions … He thought of himself as the issue of an ancient race and a faithful upholder of its ancient traditions. Yet in his medical and scientific writings, he was a tireless exponent of everything modern.”