To me, he was my father, but to millions of doctors, young and old, the world over, Frank Netter was their greatest teacher. His genius was such that he not only understood the most complex medical subjects, but he painted pictures so that they too could understand.
Frank Netter was a talented artist even as a young boy. In medical school he found that he could learn his subjects best by drawing pictures. But it was not long before his class mates began asking for his pictures so they too could learn from them, and his professors began asking for pictures to use for teaching and to illustrate their publications.
When the advertising managers at the pharmaceutical companies found out that the young Dr. Netter could paint pictures that appealed to doctors, they came asking him to illustrate the function of the wonderful new drugs they were making. His pictures showed the latest thinking in medicine; Frank Netter’s was the art of healing.
It was during the Great Depression when he was just starting out as a surgeon, and he was selling pictures for about $50 each to supplement his income. He thought if he asked an enormous amount, $300 a picture, then the advertising managers would go away and leave him to concentrate on building his surgery practice. So when the next advertising manager came to him asking for a series of five pictures, Frank told him that he wanted $1500 for the pictures. “That is a lot of money,” the advertising manager said, and he went away. But the next day he called and said that he had gotten approval, and they would pay Frank $1500 for each of the five pictures. Frank was stunned, but soon began devoting himself full time to medical illustration.
He was preparing pictures for several pharmaceutical companies in the 1930’s and 1940’s: a booklet on Novocain forthe Winthrop Chemical Company; several booklets and also a series of twelve pictures, The Life of a Doctor, for Armour Laboratories; a series of anatomical transparencies for Pfizer; and advertising materials, booklets and a series of portfolios for Ciba. Ciba then began publication of the Clinical Symposia, a periodical featuring Frank’s pictures. It was in 1953 that Ciba signed Frank to an exclusive contract to create a series of atlases called the Ciba Collection of Medical Illustrations, a project he worked on for the rest of his life.
Undoubtedly, that was the Clinical Symposia he did with Dr. William DeVries about the first implantation of the artificial heart. Barney Clark was the patient. It was a completely new
modality, and Netter so much respected the research that went into it, built one step at a time, and the future promise of it.
Frank was 80 years old and still making pictures for the Ciba Collection and the Clinical Symposia when Ciba got the idea to create Atlas of Human Anatomy. It was a colossal project, pulling together 500 pictures from the over-4000 pictures Netter had made during his 40 year relationship with Ciba, plus about 50 new pictures Frank made specifically for the Atlas, and making them all look like they had been painted at the same time. But it came out as a magnificent book, received rave reviews. Frank called it his Sistine Chapel. It is now in its sixth edition.
Frank Netter depicted the essence of the thing, not just the lines and shadows. His anatomical pictures are superb, and his pictures of patients show not simply a medical condition, but
a person suffering from it. The painting he did in consultation with Dr. Paul Dudley White, for example, shows a man coming out of a restaurant, into the snow, climbing the steps to the sidewalk, dropping his briefcase, dropping his cigarette—all the precipitating factors of a heart attack. Yet here is a real person, grasping at his chest, his face distorted in pain. And his pictures of children are very poignant. He had a great empathy for these young patients.
He achieved great success as a medical artist. He lived in opulent homes: a penthouse on Park Avenue, a gilded age country estate on Long Island and an ocean front mansion in Palm Beach. He enjoyed very much that the medical profession appreciated his work and was glad he had been able to make a contribution to medical education. But Frank Netter never thumped his chest and never looked down on anyone. He always remembered his own humble beginnings.
When my father died in 1991, two or three people suggested I write his biography. But I had young children then, and it was not until 2004 that I began writing Medicine’s Michelangelo. This is the first biography of Frank Netter, and it was always to be a biography, not a memoir or a eulogy. I began by sorting through the many boxes of papers that had come to me from Dad’s studio, and there found that he had left a rich collection of autobiographical notes. I conducted hundreds of interviews of his family, friends and colleagues. Of all of the doctors I could locate who had contributed to the Netter publications, some very distinguished people, not one turned me down for an interview. They loved him so much and were all so encouraging that I should create this portrait of the man behind the art.
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