Medicine's Michelangelo

Watercolor of arteries of the human head shows Netter's understanding of the humanity underneath the human anatomy.
Dr. Frank H. Netter was the illustrator of one of my favorite—and most well-thumbed books—the Atlas of Human Anatomy. His is a wonderful cautionary tale for those of you who think you can’t make a living in art.

A native New Yorker, Netter grew up wanting to be an artist. He studied at the National Academy and the Art Students League. It was the tail end of the Golden Age of Illustrating, and he was doing work for the Saturday Evening Post and the New York Times out of high school.

However, Netter’s parents were immigrants, and they had no truck with the idea of their son being an artist. Mama wanted him to get a real job, so he went to medical school.

The most-thumbed page in my copy is his painting of back muscles. It's saved me from making dumb mistakes countless times.
“This was in 1933—the depths of the Depression—and there was no such thing as medical practice,” he recalled. “If a patient ever wandered into your office by mistake, he didn't pay.” In a deliciously ironic twist, Netter was forced to fall back on art to supplement his income as a doctor. After an advertising executive paid him $7500 for a series of five illustrations—more than he could earn in a year of practicing—he gave up medicine.

In 1936, Netter did his first commercial work for the Swiss pharmaceutical company CIBA. This fold-up illustration of a heart (to promote digitalis) proved very popular, and grew into a series. Eventually they were distributed as cards wrapped in a folder with advertising content. This ultimately morphed into his Atlas of Human Anatomy.

But today I'm going in to have my digestive tract inspected... parts of it should look about like this, I imagine.
My edition of the Atlasincludes about 600 color plates. This is a fraction of the 4,000 illustrations he did over his lifetime. The bulk of these were owned by CIBA and its successor, Novartis.

Netter’s immigrant parents would have been astonished at the legacy left by their artist son. Wealthy during life, he is remembered today as one of the leading medical educators of his time. His book is faithfully revised by a team of medical experts, and you can now buy a subscription to it online.

While you’re reading this, I’m at Highland Hospital having a colonoscopy and an endoscopy. When I get the all-clear, I’m leaving for Maine. Come join me! I have two openings left for my 2014 workshop in Belfast, ME. Information is available here.

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