In history’s long parade of pushy mothers and miserably obedient children, no episode beats Dr. Frank H. Netter’s for a happy ending. Both parties got the last laugh.
Netter was born to immigrant parents in New York in 1906. He was an artist from the time he could grab a pencil, doodling through high school, winning a scholarship to art school, and enunciating intentions of making his living as an illustrator. Then his mother stepped in, and with an iron hand, deflected him to medicine. Frank’s siblings and cousins all had respectable careers, she informed him, and he would, too.
To his credit, he lasted quite a while: through medical school, hospital training and almost an entire year as a qualified doctor. But he continued drawing the whole time, making sketches in his lecture notes to clarify abstruse medical concepts for himself, then doing the same for classmates and even professors.
Then, fatefully, his work attracted the notice of advertising departments at pharmaceutical companies. In the midst of the Depression, he demanded and received $7,500 for a series of five drawings, many times what he might expect to earn from a full year of medical practice.He put down his scalpel for good.
Thanks to a five-decade exclusive contract with Ciba (now Novartis), he ultimately became possibly the best-known medical illustrator in the world, creating thousands of watercolor plates depicting every aspect of 20th-century medicine. His illustrations were virtually never used to market specific products, but distributed free of charge to doctors as a public service, and collected into popular textbooks.
The Netter style was unique, a true amalgam of advertising art’s splashy in-your-face realism and medicine’s scientific precision. Netter could draw anatomic details with ease, his vivid color dissections far more alive than the monochromatic plates in the old Gray’s Anatomy.
But his real genius lay in the creation of a kind of multimedia presentation on the page. He would synthesize multiple aspects of a clinical problem, with cause, effect, treatment and complications all laid out in simple visual anecdotes.
To illustrate asthma, for instance, a victim gasps in the center of the drawing, eyes wide and nostrils flared, hand clutching at her throat, while in the background small sketches of a cat, a pollen-filled tree branch and a medication bottle hint at possible causes. A family tree reminds the doctor to check for a genetic predisposition.
Compared with the usual musty textbooks, charts and tables, Netter’s user-friendly work was revolutionary, a vivid harbinger of things to come. Or as he said in his old age to a young computer graphic artist, “You copied my picture!”
His lifestyle came to exceed, presumably, even his mother’s fondest dreams. As Netter’s daughter Francine details in her admiring new biography, Mama Netter’s son the doctor owned a series of luxurious homes in Manhattan, Long Island and Florida, honed a good golf game, and cultivated the acquaintance of most of the big medical names of the late 20th century, with whom he conferred on the accuracy of his renditions. He worked — cigar in left hand, skeleton hanging to his right — till shortly before he died in 1991.
And at some point, he evolved from advertising hack and failed physician to “Medicine’s Michelangelo” (an epithet coined by a Saturday Evening Post headline writer in 1976). A collaborator took it one step further, calling him “probably the greatest educator — medical educator — of the 20th century.”
Netter’s position among the Olympians of medical education was recently formalized with the creation of the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine of Quinnipiac Universityin Connecticut. Funded by the estate of Netter’s first cousin Edward (an investment banker), the school admitted its first class a few months ago.