The Netter Collection of Medical Illustrations: Reproductive system, 2nd edn Edited by R. P. Smith and P. J. Turek . ( 336 pp.; ISBN 978-1-4377-0595-9 ; hardcover; US$99 .) Maryland, MO, USA : Elsevier Saunders . 2010 .

In 1954 Artist and Surgeon Frank Netter wrote the introduction to the 1st edition of the reproduction volume in a system by system series of medical plates –‘The Netter Collection’. These illustrations were of high quality and are now easily recognisable as of that period. Once off the presses the series became a classic and the volume was reprinted 19 times. This full revision, however, is the first attempt to update the content of the volume and much new material has been added. Over 50 years later, after great progress and changes in reproductive biology and medicine, the task of updating was a big one. It was placed in the hands of two distinguished clinicians – an obstetrician and gynaecologist and a urologist. Several artists have provided many new illustrations in a style sympathetic to the originals. The well known medical illustrator Carlos Machado was the most prolific contributor.

You might think that the revision team would be on a hiding to nothing when attempting to update a classic, for the words ‘update’ and ‘classic’ have conflicting connotations. Certainly the idiosyncratic approach of the original volume which is a collection of illustrations by a distinctive medical artist rather than a comprehensive clinical manual, text book or review of a field, must have presented problems concerning content range. There were presumably no subject-based general aims and objectives that could be updated. Rather, the original aim was to disseminate available high quality illustrations which were medically rigorous. These were exceedingly innovative and valuable and developed a strong following from the date of initial publication but were definitely a reflection of one person’s experience.

In our own era we have grown accustomed to a high level of photographic quality in medical books, ranging across pathology atlases with colour photomicrography, the resolution and contrast of cross-sectional digital imaging and the most accurately displayed regional anatomy of photographic atlases of painstaking human dissections. The very different impression that this book makes with its paints and washes is surprisingly arresting. It is most like opening the high gloss pages of the DiFiori Atlas of Human Histology as a last throw of the dice having searched through the pages of a succession of post-Wheater Burkitt and Daniel’s histology texts whilst searching for an image of a particular tissue. As it happens the histology components here are similar in style to those of Di Fiori’s book.

What about the content? Well, this is wide ranging. The title is understated – the word ‘system’ could easily have been plural since coverage is of both the male and female systems. The book is richly clinical and contains some really interesting nuggets of information based on extensive experience across a wide time span. Seeing new information set in a style that predates the developments described is undoubtedly a little unsettling and the cursory treatment of some important novel topics reinforces this response. The current text therefore continues the tradition of quirky selectiveness. Nevertheless where this text is devoting space to certain issues it is possibly the only place you can readily acquire a summary of those particular items of information. At one level it is an antidote to fashion, since some important but under-referenced information of great scientific and medical value is preserved here.

Who should read this book? It contains valuable advanced and sometimes rare reading of relevance for clinicians with an interest in a variety of aspects of urogenital medicine. It should be of central interest to medical researchers in reproductive anatomy, pathology and medicine. It is a useful reference text for occupational health specialists, microbiologists, reproductive toxicologists, geneticists, developmental biologists and embryologists. It is to my mind not an undergraduate medical student text.

Those interested in Medical illustration as a branch of visual art should certainly find interest here. As with Jamieson’s plates, Lentz’s line drawings of cell ultrastructure, and Garfield’s macrophotography in England’s Colour Atlas of Life before Birth, the illustrations have a place of honour in a proud and continuing medical artistic tradition. The hard-back book-production quality too is good enough to grace the bookshelves of a discriminating medical bibliophile.

In summary, if you buy this volume you should envisage establishing a relationship with it as you would with an old and cherished automobile. You would not choose it for efficiency but you would for its individuality and aesthetic. It may at times be hard work but nevertheless holds the promise of also being rewarding. As a famous economically astute wit once said of human reproduction ‘a child represents a lifetime’s interest on a small deposit’. Likewise this book should be of lasting value to any buyer with a strong interest in the field prepared to live with the demands it will place on their attention once the attractive purchase is complete.