In a family composed of poets, writers and actors, the only thing establishing me as the ‘creative’ one is that I am a communication designer by education. The rest must save their artistic sides for whenever they are not studying or practising medicine.
Thus it wasn’t surprising when my sister, exposed as she always is to terribly designed medical textbooks, did a double-take on sighting actual beauty in one of them. And, seeing how such an observation is of little use in her day-job, handed it over to me to professionally examine (read: gawk at uncomprehendingly.)
That is how I ended up holding the Atlas of Human Anatomy, or what Frank Netter called his ‘Sistine Chapel’. Through it, I was introduced to what became the subject of my presentation at Show & Tell #16… his intriguing life and game-changing art.
A New-Yorker born a hundred and ten years ago, Frank Henry Netter did not want to be a doctor.
He obtained a scholarship to study at the National Academy of Design, and studied there at night, after school. After further studies at the Art Students League of New York and with private teachers, he began a commercial art career. Success came quick, and his work was published in the Saturday Evening Post and The New York Times.
However, it was not to be.
“[My mother] told me all about the evils of an artist’s life, you know, how dissolute it was and how they cavorted with nude models and drank a lot and so on.
I really thought it didn’t sound like such a bad life, but I promised I would give more attention to my schoolwork.”
His family’s disapproval led to him eventually switching careers, and studying medicine. After getting a degree at the City College of New York, he completed medical school at New York University and a surgical internship at Bellevue Hospital.
The money in his re-booted career, however, was scarce. As the freshly-suffixed Frank H. Netter, M.D., put it:
“This was in 1933—the depths of the Depression—and there was no such thing as medical practice. If a patient ever wandered into your office by mistake, he didn’t pay.”
So he continued doing freelance art during his medical training, including some work for his professors. He fell back on his medical art to supplement his income. In particular, pharmaceutical companies began seeking Netter for illustrations to help sell new products. His portraits, drawings of body parts and images of new drugs and how they worked were simply too vivid and unique to ignore. In 1934, Netter saw his last patient.
Frank Netter’s encyclopaedic Ciba Collection of Medical Illustrations, which eventually included eight volumes spread over 13 books, took 40 years to complete, with the last part being published in 1993, two years after his death. It was one of the most comprehensive medical illustration projects of the 20th century.
During those 40 years, spurred by decades of requests from students and physicians, he also completed the Atlas of Human Anatomy—which is used by every medical teaching facility in the world.
His tremendous skill at the depiction of the complexity of the human body, with all its textures, opacities and volumes, along with his painstaking attention to detail and accuracy make the artistic value of his work undeniable.
However, what interests me more is how invaluable Netter’s art is for medical teaching.
His fidelity to the standardised colour coding, and the clarity of his visualisations aid the conceptual comprehension so crucial to medical education. But it is the realism of the renderings, and the attention to procedural detail—such as the inclusion of the instruments that would, in fact, be used to fold a ear over, or pull back the skin of the hand—that go such a long way in conveying what a student should expect when faced with live flesh and bone.
He illustrated the first open heart surgical operations, the first organ transplants and the first replacements of human joints. Over the course of his life, he produced more than 4,000 renderings of human anatomy, physiology and pathology.
Frank Netter has been called Medicine’s Michelangelo by an arguably biased party—his daughter. However, given the flabbergasting quality and quantity of his art, and the generations of medical students swearing by its efficacy… I wouldn’t rush to call it an overstatement.
All images are photographs of The Atlas of Human Anatomy.
Frank Netter’s artwork can be viewed here.