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from The Textbook Letter, November-December 1995

Reviewing a science book for high-school honors courses

Essentials of Human Anatomy & Physiology
1995. 586 pages. ISBN: 0-697-22925-4 (paperback) or 0-697-16044-0 (hardback).
Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 2460 Kerper Boulevard, Dubuque, Iowa 52001.

A Good, Readable Textbook
Despite Occasional Defects

Ben E. Coutant

It is difficult to find a book that covers both anatomy and physiology at an introductory level while maintaining the interest of the brighter students. Essentials of Human Anatomy & Physiology does a fairly good job in both respects. For students who plan to end their education with high school, it provides a solid, useful overview of structure and function in the human body. At the same time, it furnishes college-bound students with the preparation that they need for taking college courses in human biology.

Essentials of Human Anatomy & Physiology is in fact an introductory college text, explicitly aimed at students who want to pursue careers in "health fields" and who have "minimal backgrounds in physical and biological sciences." (So says the preface, on page xiii.) It would certainly be appropriate in a high-school honors course for students who have a variety of career goals. Ideally, the students should be familiar with high-school biology and chemistry, but even students who lack those prerequisites will be able to use this book if they are willing to study and to master the basic biology and basic chemistry in the first few chapters.

The book integrates anatomy and physiology in twenty chapters. The text is well laid out, well written and quite readable, giving enough detail without becoming too dense. There are a few places where a desire for brevity overcomes the demand for clarity, or where additional illustrations would provide a more complete story, but -- as a whole -- this is a sound textbook.

The numerous charts do a good job of summarizing and supplementing the text, and most of the illustrations are very good. For instance, the diagram of mitosis, on page 63, shows three successive stages of the prophase, three stages of the anaphase, and two stages of the telophase. (This underscores the point, made in the text, that mitosis is a continuous process, though we divide it into discrete phases because this helps us to learn the events that the process entails.) In chapter 10, which covers the somatic and special senses, good diagrams of ocular anatomy help to explain how the diameter of the pupil is controlled and how the shape of the lens is regulated. Most introductory books do not include illustrations of these concepts, though the concepts are difficult to convey in text alone. (Lens accommodation can be especially troublesome, since it involves seemingly contradictory processes. When the ciliary muscle fibers contract, the lens thickens and becomes rounder because the suspensory ligaments have relaxed. When the ciliary muscle fibers relax, the ligaments become taut and the lens becomes thinner and flatter.) In the same chapter, a useful figure shows how impulses from discrete rods may converge and be transmitted toward the brain through a single nerve fiber, while impulses from discrete cones are transmitted through discrete fibers. This explains why visual acuity is lower in dim light than in normal daylight.

The text pages include numerous short, boxed asides as well as longer sidebars that are labeled "A Topic of Interest" or "Clinical Case Study" or "A Perspective in Science." Some of the sidebars discuss pathological conditions, helping students to see relations between normal physiology and diseased states. Others supplement the main text by giving additional information that will allow students to relate anatomical or physiological concepts to observations or problems that they may encounter personally. The topics include skin calluses, coronary artery disease, anabolic steroids, respiratory-distress syndrome in infants, carbon-monoxide poisoning, and heart murmurs (to mention just a few).

Weak Spots

While most of the book presents information clearly and directly, I have noticed a few places where the text or the figures are incomplete or misleading. One of these occurs on page 204, in the chapter about the nervous system: The writers should have explained the concepts of membrane resting potentials and action potentials more clearly. At one point, they have tried to use a single jam-packed paragraph for introducing three important ideas: diffusion through a differentially permeable membrane, the maintenance of different concentrations of sodium ions and potassium ions inside and outside a cell, and the resulting difference in charge between the cell's interior and exterior. The treatment of these topics is far too brief and can cause confusion.

Later in the same chapter, the writers oversimplify some important physiology by implying that a neurotransmitter induces excitation or inhibition of a postsynaptic membrane by making the membrane more permeable or less permeable to sodium ions only. In fact, however, postsynaptic excitation or inhibition can also arise when neurotransmitters cause the opening or closing of membrane channels that are specific to other ions (such as potassium or chloride ions). The writers commit another error by classifying neurotransmitters themselves as excitatory or inhibitory. Actually, whether a neurotransmitter produces excitation or inhibition depends on what receptors and what ion channels are present; some neurotransmitters can be either excitatory or inhibitory, according to the combination of receptors and channels that occur at a particular synapse.

Another error is evident in chapter 8, where the writers say that muscle cramps are due to a lack of ATP. While a lack of ATP can produce rigor mortis, it is not implicated in muscle cramps; even when a muscle is in a fatigued state, its supply of ATP is not depleted. Cramps are sustained contractions resulting from a prolonged surge of action potentials, which are thought to be caused by nutrient deficiencies, dehydration, ion imbalances or neuronal derangements.

In chapter 7, "Skeletal System," the diagrammatic paintings of a skull are supplemented by photographs that show a real skull in several aspects. This is a helpful technique (because drawings and paintings do not always do justice to the actual structure of bones), and it could have been used advantageously in presenting other parts of the skeleton. For example, photographs might have clarified the structure of the femur; the femur is depicted only by a painting, on page 149, in which the condyles appear strangely protruded on the bone's anterior surface.

It would also be good to have some more graphs of physiological phenomena (so that students could become adept at interpreting graphical information) and more questions that require students to handle quantitative data and to get some practice in performing physiological calculations. Perhaps the next edition will include an appendix of quantitative problems.

Despite its occasional defects and omissions -- most of which seem to have arisen from the writers' attempts to keep their book from becoming too long -- Essentials of Human Anatomy & Physiology can be recommended for use in a high-school honors course for students who intend to follow diverse career paths.

The Fundamentals Are Lost
amid Gimmicks and Details

William T. Mosenthal

The stated objective of Essentials of Human Anatomy & Physiology is to instruct students "who have minimal backgrounds in physical and biological sciences." I do not believe that this worthy goal is reached. Before I defend that opinion, however, a few remarks about the appearance and organization of the book are in order.

This book is literally colorful! Color-coding is one of today's textbook fads, and the almost gluttonous use of colored items in Essentials of Human Anatomy & Physiology leads to confusion and distraction. There are purple clinical notes, purple asides, brown charts, buff review questions, blue-striped "Topic of Interest" features and buff "Perspective in Science" articles, all interspersed with the main text and all working to distract anyone who is trying to read the text and maintain a train of thought. Were I a student struggling with the difficulties of studying human anatomy and physiology, I would be irritated by those incessant interruptions. A student will learn more easily if text is presented as a continuum, without a colored box of review questions on every page, shaking a warning finger while the student is attempting to follow a concept.

The black-and-white text, the heart of any book, is comprehensive in its scope and generally accurate. I have no argument with its overall veracity, though a few errors can be found. For instance, the "specialized capillaries" of the choroid plexuses do not arise from the pia mater (page 223); the trigeminal nerve does not "transmit impulses from the scalp behind the ears" (page 229); and the output of the cerebellum is not directed exclusively to the midbrain (page 228). The writers have neglected to mention that some 95% of the cerebellar output proceeds to the thalamus and the cortex!

My difficulties with this book arise not from inaccuracies but from the way it obfuscates basic concepts by submerging them in details and by failing to explain them adequately. Let the gory details come later. The writers of Essentials of Human Anatomy & Physiology expect too much of the beginner, and they fail to stimulate the reader by imparting understanding. For instance:

Finally, I believe that there are several important omissions:

The best part of Essentials of Human Anatomy & Physiology is the illustrative material. The pictures and charts are profuse and understandable, and they almost always are placed so that they work with the text.

In sum, this is a garishly colored, richly illustrated book which would be much improved if the writers and editors would take some advice:

As it stands now, Essentials of Human Anatomy & Physiology is not a textbook that I would recommend for the instruction of students who have minimal backgrounds in physical and biological sciences.


Ben E. Coutant is an assistant professor in the School of Natural and Health Sciences at Barry University (Miami Shores, Florida), where he teaches courses in physiology, anatomy, neuroanatomy and general biology.

William T. Mosenthal, a surgeon, is a professor of anatomy and surgery, emeritus, at the Dartmouth Medical School (Hanover, New Hampshire). He has given courses in anatomy, neuroanatomy and surgical principles at that institution, and he has taught introductory anatomy and physiology at a nearby community college. He is the author of A Textbook of Neuroanatomy with Atlas and Dissection Guide, issued in 1995 by the Parthenon Publishing Company (Pearl River, New York).

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