The age old debate once again emerges. This post will attempt to sort out the confusion to help you make the best decision on your first year med school anatomy atlas purchase. While the main issue is almost always Netter or Rohen, there are actually a few other contenders that will be briefly discussed as well.
First, it is important to specify that there are both better books, and different books. What that means is that Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy (reviewed in full here) is going to be a better learning tool than most of its low budget imitators. However there are also apples-and-oranges comparisons, which is where Rohen’s Color Atlas of Anatomy (reviewed in full here) comes into play.
So which to choose? Rohen or Netter? The difference lies in how you like to study. Rohen’s Color Atlas of Anatomy is going to excel at providing actual cadaver pictures, so what you study in the book is exactly what you will be tested on in your anatomy practical exams. Rohens’ also has the benefit of only numbering structures that require a legend, so it is perfect for quizzing – simply cover the answer sheet. However, anatomy is hard for a number of reasons, one such difficulty being that multiple flesh colored structures easily blend together. As a solution, Frank Netter produced his famous Atlas of Human Anatomy, which covers all the same anatomy as Rohen, but with drawings. His illustrations have the benefit of being able to clearly show the borders of structures with differences in coloring, making the anatomy easier to understand (whereas Rohen paints a small minority of structures to a less effective degree). Tiny anatomy like nerves or vasculature pop off the page with contrast from their backgrounds with Netter. The down side is that Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy isn’t completely representative of anatomy practicals, as exams are not so conveniently color coded.
This ultimately comes down to a decision of clarity or authenticity. In the end, the debate will always be split based on this and how each individual person studies. It is recommended that you use both, depending on the situation, to get the best of both worlds. Specifically, Netter’s is a great first-pass reference book to help identify structures when initially exposed to the material, whereas Rohen’s is going to solidify existing understanding based on the actual visuals. In other words, a good strategy is to use Netter’s first, then go to Rohen’s. As owning both books can get costly, try to own the one that appeals most to you, and borrow the other from an opposite-minded friend or the library.
Rohen’s and Netter’s Anatomy Atlases are not the only Anatomy books out there, though they are generally better than most. Some other options deserve honorable mention.
The Sobatta Atlas of Human Anatomy (volume 1 and volume 2) is a hidden gem that breaks up the entire body into tremendous detail across two volumes. Many believe the quality of the illustrations themselves actually surpass Netter’s. It is important to note that this book distinguishes itself from the others by identifying all of the anatomical structures by their latin names. For a surprising majority of structures, this naming system is perfectly fine, as a good amount of anatomy is already latin. If you can use this book effectively, you will come out with a deeper understanding of the anatomy, its function, and its naming system. For example, ab muscles are called Rectus Abdominis because “rectus” comes from the latin for “straight.” Keep in mind that these will increase understanding, but at the time-cost of mastering part of a different language. Own both volumes if you can afford them, but otherwise it is worth going out of your way to find them in your school’s medical library.
Grant’s Atlas of Anatomy is another illustrated book. Unlike Netter, Rohen, and Sobatta, there’s just nothing really special to speak of. It highlights the anatomy and will help your studies, but generally doesn’t bring anything more to the table compared to the above books. Grant’s Dissector, (not to be confused with the Atlas) works particularly well for anatomy lab, but should not be purchased if your med school requires a different book. If they do require Grant’s Dissector, or you purchase it because they don’t require any book at all, you’re in good hands.
Lastly, honorable mention must be given to the epic original (but currently outdated) Gray’s Anatomy, originally named Gray’s Anatomy Descriptive and Surgical. No, it was not named after the TV show. Since the original, a number of revisions and companion books have been produced by new editors under the same name, including Gray’s Atlas of Anatomy, Gray’s Anatomy Review, Gray’s Anatomy for Students, and Gray’s Anatomy: The Anatomical Basis of Clinical Practice (seen right). See that sticker on the front cover that says “150 years?” That’s there because the original author, Henry Gray, was born in 1827. While anatomy hasn’t changed much since then, our understanding and technology has improved slightly past the mostly black-and-white images from the original Gray’s Anatomy, which can be found for free at Bartleby’s Online Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body. As you go through med school and use Dr. Wikipedia, you’ll see many of the original images from Gray’s Anatomy used as a reference (example below). The above book and many of its similarly name renditions contain up to date text and illustrations, but they are generally anatomy textbooks and not dedicated atlases like the abovementioned publications, to be reviewed at a later time. Gray’s Anatomy is mentioned here for historic reference as the influential publication that really pioneered the way of the illustrated Anatomy Atlas.