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Morris Museum of art, science, theater and history in Morristwon, New Jersey is featuring more than 40 years of art by the acclaimed master of medical illustrations. An exhibition celebrating Dr. Frank Netter's contribution to the study of human anatomy.
About Frank Netter, MD
The value of detailed images in illuminating medical content has been recognized for almost 100 years. But, it was Dr. Frank Netter (1906-1991) with his unique combination of artistic training and a physician’s perspective that took anatomical illustration from a simple quest for verisimilitude and raised it to an art. His illustrations have been a core element in the education of generations of physicians in the U.S. and abroad and are recognized as the standard in the field.
Frank Netter always wanted to be an artist. Growing up in Brooklyn and as a student at City College of New York, he took courses at the National Academy of Design and at the Art Students’ League, He was greatly influenced by the great magazine artist/illustrators of the day including Robert Henri, George Bellows and other members of what is called the “Ashcan School”—artists who sought to document everyday life. A successful commercial artist, Netter did work for the Saturday Evening Post, Life and Esquire, but eventually his family prevailed upon him to do something “respectable” and so he entered New York University School of Medicine. There he developed a lucrative sideline creating medical illustrations for his professors. In 1938, he was a surgeon practicing in Manhattan when he was asked to illustrate a pamphlet advertising heart medications for Ciba Pharmaceuticals. His meticulously detailed drawings were an instant hit with physicians and he realized that he was earning more from his medical illustrations than he was from his practice. He signed up with Ciba to do additional illustrations, and ultimately created thousands of illustrated plates in opaque watercolor gouache from pencil sketches and paintings.
Netter’s art has been hailed as an indispensable tool for teaching the details of medical processes. In his anatomical drawings of everything from muscles and blood vessels to each organ of the body, his deep understanding of the subject on a peer level with the physician has been recognized by medical students for more than half a century. In his work, Dr. Netter applied the modernist credo—to distill concepts down to the most significant details. “The artist,” he said, “must portray his subject matter as effectively as possible within the allotted pages. What to leave out becomes, at times, as important as what to include.”
In a 1988 interview in the New York Times, Dr. Netter said, “Anatomy hasn’t changed but our perceptions of it have.” Today, anatomy isn’t just for health professionals. It is the topic of popular museum exhibitions, a mainstay of medical advice web sites and a key visual tool to help explain scientific and medical content to the general public.