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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.
Rohen’s Color Atlas of Anatomy: A Photographic Study of the Human Body, more lovingly referred to simply as “Rohen’s” has a deceptive cover. The anatomy picture on the front looks cartoonish, and the “color atlas” in the name sounds like it’s a coloring book. Do not overlook this med school anatomy book, as it is a big push to increasing your chance of getting Honors on your first med school class.
It is another anatomy atlas, yes, but instead of using drawings like Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy, it excels by using actual cadaver photographs to directly show the anatomy. What this means is that the images in Rohen’s Color Atlas of Anatomy closely approximate what will be seen on every one of your anatomy practical exams in full color, but without the smell of having to actually go into anatomy lab. Later in third year, in comes in handy on surgery to identify key anatomic landmarks and surgical planes of dissection.
One of the other benefits of this atlas is that it labels structures with numbers which are referenced on another part of the page. This legend can be covered, turning the Anatomy Atlas into an instant study guide for quizzing oneself on anatomic structures. It also comes with access to the online text, which makes it portable and viewable on many smart phones.
Some med students make the mistake of trying to bring this book into anatomy lab. As with any other resource, the lab is not the place for Rohen’s Color Atlas of Anatomy unless you want to ruin your book. Everyone at medstudentbooks has the utmost respect for cadaver donors, but this warning must be expressed: liquefied adipose and fixatives get over everything brought into the lab. You do not want to bring that home on your books and have it touching anything else. Use older free copies in the lab, even though they are mildly outdated, or hope your anatomy laboratory partners haven’t found this site or don’t care if their books are ruined.
The book hits on all of the expected anatomy, being everything. The order of its units is as follows: General Anatomy Principles, Skull and Muscles of the Head, Cranial Nerves, Brain and Sensory Organs, Oral and Nasal Cavities, Neck and its Organs, Trunk, Thoracic Organs, Abdominal Organs, Retroperitoneal Organs, Upper Limb, and Lower Limb Anatomy.
As with any real cadaver pictures, care must be taken where the book is opened. While this is a superior resource for studying anatomy, it should not be opened in public areas such as buses or parks out of respect for those around you. As young medical professionals, it is easy to overlook the sensitivity of this issue. However, we are charged with maintaining professional behavior, which includes restricting the sights found in this book to other medical professionals.
If you’re the type of person who needs to visualize real images to crystallize the learning, Rohen’s Atlas of Anatomy is the book for you.