Frank Netter, MD, Magnificent Medical Illustrator - A Personal Tribute

by Madeleine Cosman, PhD, Esq

Frank Netter, one of the most remarkable medical illustrators, was a NYC M.D. who started out as a professional artist.  Likewise, Bard Cosman, M.D., plastic surgeon at New York's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital until his death in 1983, was first a professional animal sculptor for the Museum of Natural History who went from sculpture in clay and stone to sculpture in skin.  Many physicians and surgeons combine anatomical excellence with artistic ability.

Dr. Netter died in 1991.  He trained in surgery at Bellevue Hospital, part of NYU, when my father, Louis Pelner, M.D., was a medical resident there in the 1930s.  The website for the Netter trial exhibits states "Frank H. Netter, M.D., is celebrated as the foremost medical illustrator of the human organism and how it works. There are few people in medicine today who have not learned from this master of medical illustration."

Like all great artists, Frank Netter was always drawing pictures, even in childhood. He studied at the National Academy of Design in New York and later at the Art Students' League, as well as with several private teachers. By the mid-1920s he was a successful commercial artist, contributing to, among other publications, the Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, and The New York Times.

Despite his success as a commercial artist, Netter's mother persuaded him to follow a more "serious" career, and by 1933 he completed a residency in surgery at Bellevue Hospital. In the mid-1930s, however, medical illustration was gaining recognition in the United States, and Dr. Netter again pursued his passion for illustration and quickly joined the ranks of great medical artists.

Dr. Netter believed that medical illustrations play a vital role in teaching as well as in the development of a medical specialty, such as surgery. Clarity in illustration was his primary and ultimate goal; no matter how beautifully painted, a picture had little value to him if it did not make clear a medical point. His paintings are forcefully instructive and easily comprehensible, and he has left a gold mine of illustrations for teaching purposes.

Dr. Netter's association with the Ciba Pharmaceutical Company began in the 1930s, when he began painting pictures to convey information about new products to the medical profession. The demand for these lifelike renderings of major organs and their pathology prompted their publication in a book in 1948.

This first collection of medical illustrations received such an enthusiastic reception by the medical profession that Ciba was encouraged to expand the program by creating a series of volumes that would portray the anatomy and pathology of all systems of the human organism. Thus was born the monumental project, The Netter Collection of Medical Illustrations, the first volume of which was published in 1953 and the last in 1993, spanning 40 years of Dr. Netter's career. Other Netter publications include Clinical Symposia, a quarterly clinical monograph dealing with a specific medical topic, and the Atlas of Human Anatomy, which fast became the best-selling anatomy atlas in the medical professions.

Today, after more than 50 years at the forefront of his profession, the late Dr. Frank H. Netter is acknowledged as the most famous medical illustrator in the world."

I have retained some of the old Ciba Symposium pages.