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Human/Humane - The BioArt of Frank H. Netter, M.D

“I try to depict living patients whenever possible. After all, physicians do see patients, and we must remember we are treating whole human beings.”

“[My work] deals with the most humanistic, the most soul-searching of subjects … people break bones, develop painful or swollen joints, are handicapped … some are beset by tumors or undergo amputations. These are people we see about quite commonly and are often our friends, relatives, or acquaintances.”
– Frank Netter, M.D.

University of the Sciences in Philadelphia is exhibiting a selection of original medical illustrations by Frank Netter, M.D. (1906-1991), a world-renowned anatomy artist who is regarded by many as the most accomplished and influential medical illustrator of the 20th century.

The exhibition at the University consists of 47 unique gouache—watercolor—paintings from a corpus of more than 4,000 of Dr. Netter’s works that display various aspects of illness, trauma, anatomy, development, malformation, pathology, medical testing and diagnosis, and patient care. Many of his impressive illustrations, commissioned by Ciba-Geigy Corporation over several Woman with Dermatosis decades, appeared in Clinical Symposia, a well-known quarterly clinical monograph used by primary care professionals as a teaching aid and reference.

Through the generosity of Novartis Pharmaceuticals, the University is able to display these important works for three months.

About Dr. Frank Netter

Frank Henry Netter (1906-1991) studied at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students’ League, and by the mid-1920s he was a successful commercial artist for publications such as The Saturday Heart Evening Post and The New York Times. At his mother’s urging to follow a more ‘serious’ career, he entered medical school at New York University, where he received his medical degree in 1931. During his student years, Netter’s notebook sketches caught the attention of various medical professors, allowing him to supplement his income by illustrating lectures, articles and textbooks. While in private surgical practice, he accepted art commissions, but eventually this artist-cum-surgeon gave up his medical practice altogether, in favor of a full-time commitment to art. The result was Netter’s legendary ability to comprehend thoroughly as a physician before liberating the potent creative forces of the artist.

As an army officer in WWII, he illustrated several manuals on first-aid for combat troops, sanitation in the field, and survival in the tropics. In the late 1930s, shortly before his military duty, he had already begun what was to become a rewarding and prolific 45-year partnership with the Ciba Pharmaceutical Company (later Ciba-Geigy, which in 1996 became Novartis), which resulted in thousands of designs for the serial Clinical Symposia and what has become his opus magnum, The Ciba Collection of Medical Illustrations (13 volumes). The latter illustrates the most important systems and diseases of the body in painstaking, brilliant detail and remains one of the most famous medical works ever produced. Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy, first published in 1989 (and translated into 11 languages) presents anatomical paintings largely culled from The Ciba Collection and is currently the anatomy atlas of choice among medical and health professionals the world over. Nearly all the original works in the current exhibition originate from these published sources.

Although created for their intellectual content, Netter’s paintings are appreciated for their aesthetic qualities, such as their ability to depict the functionality of organs in a strikingly animated manner. Although the study of anatomy dates to the ancient Egyptians, the art of medical illustration did not truly emerge until the Renaissance, when artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo created drawings based on cadaveric dissections. The stringent clarity, stunning accuracy, and beauty of the works of this ‘Michelangelo of Medicine’ – as a 1976 Saturday Evening Post article described Netter – follow solidly in the tradition of this marriage of science and art.

One of the most important blends of this tradition occurred in the sixteenth century, with the publication of De Humani Corporis Fabrica in 1543. A collaboration between the anatomist-physician Andreas Vesalius and the artist Jan Stefan van Kalkar of Flanders, De Fabrica was the standard anatomy atlas for centuries, to be enhanced or supplanted only when technological discoveries (such as the invention of the compound microscope in the 17th century, or the discovery of X-rays in the 19th century) revealed new knowledge about human anatomy. In the spirit of collaboration, it is useful to recall that although a physician/surgeon himself, Netter consulted dozens of medical experts throughout his career as he conceptualized his paintings. This is especially true for design projects documenting new discoveries in medicine, such as computerized axial tomography (CAT) scanners, joint replacements, and the first artificial heart transplant.

Always drawn to the complexity and diversity of people, Netter strived to create faces and bodies in his work that mirrored their individual personalities. The result was that disease and trauma are viewed humanely, that is, as a complex life challenge faced by people rather than an isolated intellectual puzzle. Netter’s sense of humanity and empathy for patients is one of the most distinguishing features of his paintings; as he said, “I always tried to make [the subject] look like a living patient, with proper facial expression and so forth, to show that this is not a machine we are dealing with. We’re not repairing a television set when we’re treating these patients.”

Netter spent far more time researching a subject and planning an illustration than in executing it. After absorbing from a multitude of sources as much information as necessary, he typically created pencil sketches, which were then copied and transformed into finished designs in gouache – a watercolor technique – to which he often added opaque paints, colored pencils, or pastels, for shading and fine detail. Nearly half of the works in the current exhibition appear with their original mylar overlays which contain text and additional graphics that supplemented or completed the paintings in their final, printed form.

© 2005 Netter Illustrations used with permission of Icon Learning Systems, a division of MediMedia USA, Inc. All rights reserved.


Posterior view of the base of the heart (top); and posteroinferior view, i.e. the heart viewed from below and behind (bottom). The average adult heart is about the size of a clenched fist and weighs about eleven ounces; its shape approximates an upside-down pear.
© 2005 Netter Illustrations used with permission of Icon Learning Systems, a division of MediMedia USA, Inc. All rights reserved.


Woman with Dermatosis
The editorial accompanying this 1951 image stated that with the inclusion of the camera Netter was "pay[ing] tribute to the rival art of color photography." The dermatosis (skin disease) depicted is probably atopic dermatitis, an inflammation of the skin also known as eczema, caused by low levels of the protein cytokine in the immune system.
© 2005 Netter Illustrations used with permission of Icon Learning Systems, a division of MediMedia USA, Inc. All rights reserved.


Scuba Diving, I: Decompression Sickness
In Decompression Sickness, one of the more serious illnesses associated with pressure reduction during diving, nitrogen gas bubbles are released into the bloodstream and tissues, which can cause numbness, dizziness, weakness, nausea, pain, headaches, itching, and visual disturbances.
© 2005 Netter Illustrations used with permission of Icon Learning Systems, a division of MediMedia USA, Inc. All rights reserved.


Michael J. Brody
Director and Curator


Office Location: Griffith Hall
University of the Sciences
600 South 43rd St.
Philadelphia, PA 19104-4495