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Medical Illustrator Biography: Frank Netter, M.D.


One of the most influential artists in the field of medical illustration is Frank H. Netter, who is best known for his large quantity of illustrations dealing with human anatomy and physiology. Accounts have placed his prolific number of illustrations at around 4,000, making him one of the most accomplished medical illustrators of the twentieth century. His career spanned fifty years and allowed him to illustrate many of the newest developments in medicine such as the first CAT scan and the first artificial heart transplantation procedure. Frank Netter published numerous books which included his colorful illustrations as aides in understanding human anatomy and physiology. Netter's "Atlas of Human Anatomy" was first published in 1989 and quickly became the preferred book of anatomical reference for medical students.

Frank Netter was born in New York City in 1906 and studied art at the Art Student's League in the National Academy of Design. As Frank grew up fascinated by art and had established himself as a successful commercial artist by the 1920's. He had been featured in popular publications such as the Saturday evening Post, Colliers, and The New York Times. But his parents felt that artists led a very dissolute life and they were afraid that he would not be able to support himself. Frank's mother never supported his desires to be an artist and she strongly urged Frank to consider a more "dependable" career. So on the heals of his mother's death, Frank honored her memory by enrolling in the New York University Medical School to pursue a training as a surgeon.

During medical school, he used his artistic talents to clarify and understand a anatomical subjects and to communicate the concepts to others. In 1931, Frank Netter received his MD degree from the medical school at New York University. Having gone through medical school himself, Netter knew the challenges that medical students experienced and he figured out how he could use his skills to teach other students. He used his artistic talents and techniques to clarify anatomical structures and to make the anatomy more appealing to look at rather than morbid or gruesome.

While at the university, many of the faculty noticed his artistic talents and asked Frank if he could do some illustrations for them as a freelance work. In 1933 Netter opened surgical practice but continued to do freelance illustrations for doctors and textbooks. In these times of the Depression, Netter found that there was more interest in his medical artwork rather than his surgical capabilites. He had originally planned to do drawings until he got his surgical practice established, but he found that the demand for his pictures grew much faster that the demand for his surgery. Ultimately he gave up his surgical practice in order to pursue a full-time commitment to art.

During World War II, Frank Netter served in the United States Army. It was during that time (1938) that he developed his long collaboration with the CIBA Pharmaceutial Company. This relationship lasted for 45 years during which Netter produced an enormous body of work for books, journals, and other publications. In 1948, Frank Netter published his first successful publication, followed by the series of volumes that came to be known as The Netter Collection of Medical Illustrations. He later went on to illustrate a series of anatomy atlases to which he devoted much of his life. The atlases consisted of groups of volumes which were each devoted to a particular organ system and the diseases of that system. The topics that are covered by these books include human anatomy, embryology, physiology, and pathology of the nervous system, reproductive system, lower and upper digestive tracts, the liver, biliary tract and pancreas, endocrine system, kidney, ureters, urinary bladder, respiratory system, and musculoskeletal system. As he worked, Netter made pencil sketches that he then transfered to another paper and painted. Netter liked to include pictures of real people because he felt that docotrs see real people all the time and that we need to not forget that we are treating whole human beings. "I always tried to make [the person in the painting] look like a living patient, with the proper facial expression and so forth - to show that this is not a machine we're dealing with," said Dr. Netter.

In the early 1980's, Frank Netter attended the first artificial heart transplant and illustrated the procedure in full detail. He also took part in several elaborate projects such as building a seven foot tall sculpture of a transparent woman which showed the menstral process, the development and birth of a baby, and the physical and sexual development of a woman. This sculpture was displayed at the San Francisco Golden Gate Exposition. In 1988, the New York Times made a statement saying that Netter had contributed more to medical education than most of the world's anatomy professors combined. In 2000, Icon learning Systems acquired the Netter Collection and continues to update Netter's orignial collection of paintings with new illustrations done by medical artists trained in the style of Netter.

Frank Netter died in 1991 at the age of 85.


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