Book Review – Medicine’s Michelangelo: The Life & Art of Frank H. Netter, MD

January 24, 2014

By Matthew Vorsanger, MD

The delicate tracery of the superficial nervous system, the sweeping curves of the lobes of the liver, the bones of the skull – color coded in pastel blues, pinks, and greens. For many of us, the imagery of Dr. Frank Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy is indelibly etched into our mind’s eye. But what do we know of the man whose gift it was to distill the most complex anatomic structures into vividly comprehensible illustrations? Recently published by his daughter, Francine Netter, Medicine’s Michelangelo: The Life & Art of Frank H. Netter, MD is a touching tribute from a daughter to her father as well as a striking account of the life of the premier medical illustrator of our time.

Beginning with the origins of the Netter family in the Alsace region of France, the narrative quickly moves to Frank Netter’s upbringing in New York City and his early love of art. Although a thrill to read the depiction of Frank Netter’s experiences as a medical student and then resident at New York University and Bellevue Hospital, the book truly enthralls when describing the melding of the young Dr. Netter’s passion for medicine and artistry. Struggling to create a practice in the era of the Great Depression, Netter initially viewed selling medical art to pharmaceutical companies as a necessary diversion from treating patients. However, when he asked for $1500 for a set of five illustrations and instead received $1500 each, he realized the potential of his gift.

Though we may view Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy as his crowning achievement, in truth, it was the culmination and compilation of decades of prior work. Notably, one of his early works took form as the illustration of the Combat First Aid manual during World War II. On the heels of that accomplishment, he entered into an exclusive contract with the pharmaceutical company, Ciba (later Ciba-Geigy), to illustrate a series of educational materials called Clinical Symposia. So popular were these pieces that his contract was renewed over the next 40 years until these works became his magnum opus. The illustrations that he produced for the Clinical Symposia would later be compiled into the Atlas of Human Anatomy, first published in 1989 when Netter himself was 83 years of age.

Of the themes that recur throughout the book, perhaps the most notable is Netter’s humility, remarked upon even in his later years when his name was known by medical students the world over. Throughout the text, the attestations of his peers abound, doctors renowned as Michael DeBakey, Jacob Churg, C. Everett Koop, and Albert Sabin, among many others. His unique educational ability – the exclusion of unimportant details to highlight the important ones – was lauded as one of his greatest skills. This remarkable book gives us insight into the life of an extraordinary man and should be on the reading list of every physician who has been privileged enough to have learned from Netter’s beautiful illustrations.

One comment on “Book Review – Medicine’s Michelangelo: The Life & Art of Frank H. Netter, MD

  • Avatar of Ephraim
    Ephraim on

    Very nice review of one of the world’s master’s of medical illustration but…wouldn’t it have been more informative if you had included a bit more than the cursory superficial identifying information and lauded kudos of medical celebrities. But, the review was sufficient to draw me to seek the book out. Thank you.

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