It’s the age of “green” no doubt about it. Houses, cars, and even lifestyles with small carbon footprints are part of a larger deeper, planetary respect. You may know of green pencils (from recycled newspapers), sugar cane paper and, of course, green books. But, did you know that the ultimate green book is one that has been around for 54 years and has a huge worldwide following in medicine?
The Netter Green Books are a veritable medical bible that has now been revised for the first time in five and half decades. I am honored to be one of its new editors. Giddy as I write this, Volume One, The Reproductive System, was just sent to me and it is absolutely glorious. Have a look on Amazon and you’ll see.
Who is Frank Netter?
Arguably the finest medical illustrator of the human body since Da Vinci, Dr. Frank Netter’s career as a medical illustrator began in the 1930’s. As a surgeon in training at NYU, he learned by cramming his notebooks with pictures, not words. His professors discovered this talent and offered to pay him for his art and helped to fund his medical education. Near the end of his career, his incredibly detailed, lifelike renderings of the human body in watercolor led the New York Times to hail him as “The Medical Michelangelo.”
How to Update a Masterpiece
Physicians old and young have looked at these images time and again for five decades, seeing in them comfortable sources of clear and clinically succinct information. The privilege of editing this monumental tomb has been both daunting and revealing. Dr. Netter’s art is utterly timeless, highly exact and informed to the point of being prescient. How do you improve on a masterpiece? On the other hand, medicine has change dramatically over the past half century and really demands that entirely new knowledge be revealed. Similar to restoring a Michelangelo painting or translating a Nabokov novel, editing this volume highlighted to me both the vast changes in medicine and the timelessness of Dr. Netter’s art. I chose to let the art do the talking and wrote text to frame it with context, clarification and modern clinical relevance.
Medicine as Art
I come from a family of painters and, as a surgeon, rather fancy myself a craftsman of sorts. This may be why I so enjoyed working with great artists such as Carlos Machado and Tiffany deVanzo who illustrated this volume. As a team, we were able to tackle such complex concepts as ejaculatory duct obstruction, microsurgery and the genetics of sex determination and convey them as medical art. Indeed, some of the figures we proposed for the new Netters took several months to get just right.
Just as challenging for me was my duty to examine the authority of current scientific knowledge. Although I have written and published 60 or more textbook chapters to date, for the first time and for this book, I would constantly ask myself whether what I had written is true not only now, but would be for the next 50 years, until the next edition is written. Trying to tell the difference between what we really know and what we really don’t is a daunting but intensely fulfilling task. My admiration and respect for the wondrously rich and intricate, baffling yet logical, and powerful but delicate workings of the human body have grown in unimaginable ways from this effort. Such are he “soft whisperings” of beauty of which Kahlil Gibran speaks.