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Best Human Anatomy Textbooks

Updated on September 4, 2020

Are you confused about what books to use when you're teaching or learning anatomy? Keep reading ...

Are you a student who is learning anatomy for the first time? Maybe an undergraduate student taking a course in human anatomy or a medical, dental, nursing, or PA student taking human gross anatomy? Or, are you a professor or instructor who needs to decide which books to use in your human anatomy or human gross anatomy course? For many of you, the book you use will be determined for you by a teacher, professor(s), or the last person to teach the course, but, for others, the choice of text will be one of the most important decisions you will need to make. If you are an instructor or professor, this page will help you decide the strengths and weaknesses of each book. If you are a student, you can check how other books measure up to the one you are using, and decide if another book will help you to better learn the material.

Why you should read this page

I've done all the hard work for you! When I accepted a new position at Benedictine University in Lisle, IL (where I am currently an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences) I needed to review textbooks for a Human Anatomy course. Many years ago when I took Human Gross Anatomy we used Keith Moore's Clinically Oriented Anatomy, Netter's Atlas, and Grant's Dissector, a classic combination. I remember Moore's book as being really good but not always entirely clear, with so-so illustrations and WAY too much detail for an undergraduate course in human anatomy. Therefore, I set about reviewing human anatomy books. This page is a report on what I found.

The Main Textbook

First, you will need a main book that you will read and refer to throughout the semester. The four textbooks listed below are the ones most often used in human anatomy courses.

A Modern Classic ...

Clinically Oriented Anatomy
Clinically Oriented Anatomy
This is the classic textbook for Human Gross Anatomy and related courses. It exhibits a wealth of clinical cases and nearly exhaustive detail for certain subjects. The illustrations are OK but in a variety of different styles, and, as noted above, the writing is mostly clear but there is WAY too much detail for a one-semester undergraduate course. This book is appropriate for a one-semester graduate course in human gross anatomy.

"Baby Moore"

Moore's Essential Clinical Anatomy
Moore's Essential Clinical Anatomy
Recognizing that the level of detail was too great for undergraduate courses and even for many gross anatomy courses, Lippincott Williams and Wilkins came out with this book, which distills many anatomical ideas for a more streamlined and readable text. This book is renowned for its excellent tables of muscles, nerves, and vasculature, and is very useful but not exhaustive by any means. It still reads like Clinically Oriented Anatomy in many places, though. I really like this book and think that it could easily be used for a one-semester undergraduate course, although there are a few errors (as there are with any book).

A New Classic?

Gray's Anatomy for Students: With Student Consult Online Access
Gray's Anatomy for Students: With Student Consult Online Access
This book is the other real alternative for undergraduate courses, and can even be used for gross anatomy courses. It is really well-written, and the illustrations are creative and top-notch. There are small errors as with any text, but this book does a good job of distilling the main ideas and explaining things so that they can be easily understood. One area that this text is deficient in is anatomically realistic drawings, which may limit its usefulness in a dissection course (although this aspect of the book has been steadily improving since the 1st edition). I used an earlier edition of this book in my fall 2012 Human Anatomy course before moving to Gray's Basic Anatomy.

"Baby Gray's"

Gray's Basic Anatomy
Gray's Basic Anatomy
Just like Essential Clinical Anatomy is "Baby Moore," this book is "Baby Gray's." It has slightly less information than Gray's Anatomy for Students 4e, but lots of the muscle, nerve, and vessel descriptions have been moved to tables, and the illustrations have been re-sized to fit into one column instead of taking up an entire page or 1/2-page. I think that one-semester undergraduate Human Anatomy course instructors and students both thought that the full edition of Gray's Anatomy for Students was a little too much information, and this book deals with that problem perfectly. I have been using this book in my Human Anatomy course since spring 2013.

Anatomy Atlases

Now that you have your main textbook, you will notice that, although it is illustrated throughout, there are not consistent views for all of the regions of the body, and you will need to spend a lot of time going through and picking out the illustrations you need. You will want to get an anatomy atlas, which shows you all the relevant anatomy for each region of the body. When I took gross anatomy, most students preferred Netter's Atlas, where the illustrations are beautiful and color-coded (i.e., arteries are red, veins blue, nerves yellow, lymphatics green), but I preferred Grant's Atlas, which illustrated structures a bit less idealistically. Half-way through the semester, our dissection table discovered Rohen's atlas, which was a revelation since it included cadaver pictures which helped us with the practical part of the course. Rohen's atlas quickly became our favorite study aid, although we still supplemented with Netter or Grant's atlas. Grant's Atlas shares many illustrations with Moore's Clinically Oriented Anatomy, and Gray's Atlas is a companion to Gray's Anatomy for Students, so these atlases should be considered for courses which use one or the other of these books as their main text. I was introduced to Thieme's Atlas by students in my fall 2012 undergraduate course, and at this point it is by far my favorite - the illustrations are outstanding and exhibit more of a modern sensibility.

Atlas of Human Anatomy (Netter Basic Science)
Atlas of Human Anatomy (Netter Basic Science)
Even though I preferred Grant's Atlas when I was a graduate student in gross anatomy, I can see what all the hype is about. I appreciate the beauty and simplicity of the drawings in this book much more now. It really is a classic and deservedly so.
Atlas of Anatomy
Atlas of Anatomy
Students in my Human Anatomy course prefer this atlas - and I can see why. The drawings are outstanding - a bit more realistic than Netter's or even Grant's atlases, but very artsy. It is the atlas I would want to show to my friends who are not anatomists.
Grant's Atlas of Anatomy (Lippincott Connect)
Grant's Atlas of Anatomy (Lippincott Connect)
As I noted above, I used this atlas in gross anatomy, and I still refer back to it. If you are using one of the Moore books as your main textbook, there is something to be said for having some overlap in the drawings featured in all three books. The illustration style is jarring to some people, and it clearly isn't Netter's atlas.
Color Atlas of Anatomy: A Photographic Study of the Human Body
Color Atlas of Anatomy: A Photographic Study of the Human Body
It is very useful to have full-color photographs of dissections of human cadavers, even if you use Netter or Grant as your main atlas. If you are dissecting and not just looking at a prosection, it is very useful to have this atlas handy (but see "Dissectors and Prosectors" below). Unfortunately, the last updated edition of this book is from 2010, so it is beginning to look a little long in the tooth.
Gray's Atlas of Anatomy (Gray's Anatomy)
Gray's Atlas of Anatomy (Gray's Anatomy)
This atlas goes with the Gray's Anatomy for Students/Gray's Basic Anatomy textbooks. There is definitely something to be said about using an atlas that shares an art style and, in some cases, even specific images, with the textbook, but it can also seem redundant at times. I like this book because I admire the art style in all the modern Gray's Anatomy products.

Anatomy Dissectors and Prosectors

Grant's Dissector (Lippincott Connect)
Grant's Dissector (Lippincott Connect)
This is the classic dissector, used by nearly every gross anatomy course in the country. It is quirky and excellent. Following are some details about this edition. It is keyed to the following atlases: Grant's, Netter's, Rohen's, Clemente's, and LWW. Illustrations are in color and are mostly consistent, sharing an art style mostly with Grant's atlas, although there are illustrations sprinkled throughout the text from Netter's Atlas, Moore's Clinically Oriented Anatomy and Essential Clinical Anatomy, and other textbooks and atlases. Dissections follow Grant's method and have been honed to near-perfection by millions of medical, dental, and professional students over the last 75+ years. Every dissection includes sections on surface anatomy, osteology, dissection overview, step-by-step instructions, clinical correlation boxes, and follow-up. Dissections differ greatly in length and it is up to the instructor to decide how they should be combined.
Gray's Clinical Photographic Dissector of the Human Body: with STUDENT CONSULT Online Access (Gray's Anatomy)
Gray's Clinical Photographic Dissector of the Human Body: with STUDENT CONSULT Online Access (Gray's Anatomy)
IT'S ABOUT TIME that somebody published a photographic dissector! Every gross anatomy student laments the fact that Grant's Dissector does not include cadaver pictures, and this problem has driven generations of students to turn to Rohen's atlas and other works with photographs. I have not used this in dissection yet but here are my preliminary observations. Photographs throughout, of course, but no illustrations. I hate to complain, but this is actually detrimental to learning. There is a reason that so many textbooks and atlases employ illustrations - they transmit information in a way that is easier to comprehend and aids learning. A few well-chosen illustrations could have gone a long way. Each dissection is keyed to the following atlases: Netter's, McMinn's, Gray's, at the beginning of each dissection only and not throughout. Again, this is not ideal and students will be flipping back-and-forth to chase atlas illustrations rather than focusing on dissections. Also, the list of atlases is not traditional and many students with Grant's or Rohen's atlases will be left high and dry. Includes "Before you Begin" surface anatomy boxes for some dissections (but strangely, not others), step-by-step dissection instructions, dissection tips, end-of-chapter lab ID checklists, clinical applications keyed to Gray's Anatomy for Students and Netter's atlas. It is lacking clear tabbing available in other dissectors (so, for example, it is difficult to quickly find a particular body region) and it is not as neatly organized as Grant's or Clemente's dissectors. Conclusion: not quite ready for prime time, but shows great promise.
Clemente's Anatomy Dissector
Clemente's Anatomy Dissector
I have a copy of this dissector but I have yet to use it to dissect anything, so these are my preliminary observations. Each dissection is keyed to the following atlases: Clemente's (of course), Grant's, Netter's, Rohen's. Illustrations are in black-and-white with red highlights, and the color red is employed throughout the text. Dissections seem to be well-conceived and a good alternative to Grant's method which is employed in every other dissector. Includes "Objectives," beginning explanation of surface anatomy, step-by-step dissection instructions, and "Clinical Relevance" boxes. Each dissection is estimated to take 2.5 to 3 hours. A nice feature of this dissector is that the dissections are neatly organized into discrete lessons. As with Rohen's Color Atlas of Human Anatomy, the latest updated edition of this book is from 2010, and so it is beginning to show its age.

Embryology Books

For many Gross Anatomy courses, you will need an embryology book. There are several possibilities.

Langman's Medical Embryology
Langman's Medical Embryology
This is an updated version of the book I used as a graduate student taking Gross Anatomy, and it is a well-respected classic for good reason. I like the way it is written and it has many helpful illustration and photographs. The incorporation of developmental genetics into the text is not seamless, which is a byproduct of its long publishing history, but that is not too bad in the larger scope of the whole book.
Larsen's Human Embryology (Schoenwolf,Larsen's Human Embryology)
Larsen's Human Embryology (Schoenwolf,Larsen's Human Embryology)
This is the other classic human embryology textbook often used in gross anatomy courses. I prefer Langman's Medical Embryology, but this book is also very good. Interestingly, the two books share the same weakness in their discussion of developmental genetics, probably for the same reason - those sections had to be incorporated into an already existing framework rather than helping to establish the framework before the text was written.
The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 11e
The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 11e
This is a "newer" embryology book (it is "only" in its 11th edition), and I haven't looked at the newest edition, which was published in 2019. This book was written by Keith Moore (along with two co-authors), who also wrote Clinically Oriented Anatomy. It looks interesting, but I did notice that the illustrations are starting to show their age a little bit and could use the type of revitalization that can be found in newer artwork in Gray's Anatomy for Students and Thieme's Atlas.

Imaging Atlas

It is becoming increasingly important to understand anatomical relationships on medical images, including computerized tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. Many gross anatomy labs require students to identify structures on scans, and so it is important to have an atlas that includes lots of images from multiple imaging modalities.

Weir & Abrahams' Imaging Atlas of Human Anatomy
Weir & Abrahams' Imaging Atlas of Human Anatomy
I prefer this atlas - it has a good mix of imaging modalities and clear presentation.

Reference Book

Finally, if you continue as an anatomist or in a health profession where you will constantly have to refresh your memory about very nitpicky details, you may want to invest in a reference work.

Gray's Anatomy: The Anatomical Basis of Clinical Practice
Gray's Anatomy: The Anatomical Basis of Clinical Practice
Many people use Moore's Clinically Oriented Anatomy for this purpose, but the updated version of Gray's Anatomy is THE standard reference work. This is everything you ever wanted to know about anatomy but were afraid to ask (or didn't know where to look). It is a little confusing, but you should be aware that there is a difference between this edition of Gray's Anatomy, which is a reference work; Gray's Anatomy for Students, which is a textbook used in undergraduate, graduate, and medical courses; and Gray's Anatomy (1918 edition), which is a reproduction of the beautifully-illustrated (but outdated) 1918 edition of Gray's Anatomy that you've most likely seen in the bargain bin at your local bookstore. The edition I've linked to here is the real deal.

Now you are ready - good luck!

If at this point you are thinking that there are a ton of books you need to teach or learn human anatomy, don't panic! It is true that anatomy is a very exacting field and graduate students and medical professionals needs to know an enormous amount of material to understand how the human body works, but it is doable! At a minimum, you will want to get one of the main textbooks and, maybe, an atlas. You may want to get more than one atlas, since a few of them have complementary strengths and weaknesses (I would suggest combining either Netter's, Gray's, or Thieme's atlas with Rohen's atlas). If you are teaching or taking gross anatomy then you will need to get a good dissector. Many gross anatomy courses will require you to have an embryology textbook and a medical imaging atlas. Don't even think about getting the complete 41st edition of Gray's Anatomy until you have completed the course! (and lay off the unabridged Running Press 1918 facsimile edition unless you plan on being a historian of medical anatomy). Now that you know what books you'll need, all you need to do is focus on identifying structures, making connections, and understanding form/function relationships - good luck!

Let me know if you like an anatomy book that is not listed here - I'm always looking for new resources!

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2020 Robert McCarthy


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