The late Frank Netter has been described as a medical Norman Rockwell, but a current exhibit of his illustrations makes the comparison seem macabre. Just imagine one of Rockwell’s frisky youths with part of his flesh pulled away to reveal an exquisite, gleaming maze of red and blue passageways. Generally regarded as one of the world’s greatest medical illustrators, Netter produced work that introduced medical students around the world to the subtleties of the human body for over 40 years.

Though he eventually became a surgeon, as a youth Netter haunted the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in the 1920s he studied at the National Academy of Design. He later took a place in the magic circle of commercial illustrators–along with Norman Rockwell–who worked for Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post.

Upon the death of his mother, Netter fulfilled her wish that he become a doctor, but he didn’t give up his attachment to art. “When I was in medical school,” said Netter, “I found I could learn my subject best by making drawings. When my professors saw my drawings they began to ask me to make drawings for their articles and books.”

Soon, pharmaceutical companies sought his skills for advertising purposes. One Netter illustration for the heart preparation digitalis consisted of a small folded heart that opened up to reveal an anatomically correct rendering of the organ’s interior. Doctors wanted a version without any lettering on it, and this led to cutouts of the stomach, kidneys, lungs, and other organs.

Up until his death last fall, Netter produced thousands of illustrations, covering human anatomy, embryology, and pathology, system by system. His vaguely surreal work combines a delicate sense of dimension with a sharp, merciless eye for detail. Even the smallest bundle of tissues glows with astonishing intricacy.

More than 40 original paintings by Frank H. Netter will be on display through August 30 in the International Museum of Surgical Science’s new gallery, 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive. Hours are 10 to 4 Tuesday through Saturday, 11 to 5 Sunday. Admission is free. Call 642-3555 for details.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.