Official Publicaiton of The Association of Surgeons of India, Kerala Chapter

A voyage through Gray’s Anatomy


Dr. B.Ekbal

In the fascinating book The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray's Anatomy (Ballantine Books 2007) Bill Hayes sets on a voyage to record the making of Gray’s Anatomy by Henry Gray(1827-1861) and the illustrator medico Henry Vandyke Carter (1831-1897). In 1858, Gray published the first edition of Anatomy, which covered 750 pages and contained 363 figures. He had the good fortune of securing the help of his friend Henry Vandyke Carter, a skilled draughtsman and formerly a demonstrator of anatomy at St. George’s Hospital. Carter made the drawings from which the engravings were executed, and the success of the book was, in the first instance, undoubtedly due in no small measure to the excellence of its illustrations. This edition was dedicated to Sir Benjamin Collins Brodie, Bart, FRS, DCL. A second edition was prepared by Gray and published in 1860. Earlier editions were called Anatomy: Descriptive and Surgical and Gray's Anatomy: Descriptive and Applied, but the book's name is commonly shortened to, and later editions are titled, Gray's Anatomy. The book is widely regarded as an extremely influential work on the subject, and has continued to be revised and republished from its initial publication in 1858 to the present day. The latest edition of the book, the 41st, was published in September 2015. Henry Gray died of small pox at the young age of 34, one year after the publication of the second edition of the book.

Henry Gray was only 31 years and Henry Carter 27 years when they jointly completed the epoch making publication of the Anatomy text book. Both were passing through personal and academic difficulties and challenges when they jumped into the project for the preparation of the book in 1850. In spite of all hurdles they could complete the book in a relatively short time to come out with one of the most classic books in the history of medicine. After the publication of Anatomy, Gray's career appeared to hold great promise. He was offered a position of Assistant Surgeon at Saint George. However, Gray's ever-present interest in his research led him to studying the anatomical effects of infectious diseases at the bedside of his ailing nephew. During his time with his nephew, Gray contracted smallpox and died in 1861, at the age of 34. He never assumed his new post. One lesson that the publication of the book strongly proclaims is the fact that given the will and commitment anything can be achieved even at such younger age.

For generations of medical students Grays Anatomy was a must book for study in their earlier days of medical training. The book is a rich source of anatomy both gross anatomy and in the latest editions of microscopic anatomy as well. The detailed and meticulous description of the human anatomy by Henry Gray illustrated with amazing clarity and beauty by Henry Carter at once attracts and enthralls medicos, Because of the enormous anatomical information studded in the book Grays Anatomy is a reference book for all medical academics.

Fascinated by the fact that little was known about the famous book’s genesis, Hayes combed through nineteenth-century letters and medical-school records, learning that, besides Henry Gray, the brilliant scholar and surgeon who wrote the text, another anatomist was crucial to the book’s popularity: Henry Vandyke Carter, who provided its painstaking drawings. Hayes moves nimbly between the dour streets of Victorian London, where Gray and Carter trained at St. George’s Hospital, and the sunnier classrooms of a West Coast university filled with athletic physical therapists in training, where he enrols in anatomy classes to get a first hand knowledge about human anatomy . Hay also records his visits to libraries to read the original Gray’s Anatomy and De humani corporis fabrica libri septem byAndreas Vesalius (1514-1564) published in 1543.

The heart of the story remains how Gray and Carter came together to create their landmark book. Unlike Gray, Carter kept a detailed diary, which is available, along with many of his letters to his family, for scholarly study. Because of this, Carter's story moves to the forefront in the narrative, along with his search for ways to ease his mother's pain as she battled breast cancer, his own struggles with personal depression, and the bone-crushing pressure he felt to achieve professional success. Carter wrestles with these questions in his diary entries and letters and then, improbably, becomes involved in a situation that Hayes rightfully considers a Victorian melodrama that seems more appropriate for a work of fiction.

In the midst of writing this book Hayes became deeply involved in the lives of his subjects and reveals just how much they came to be part of his life. He touched the papers they wrote on, viewed exact specimens they had studied, and stood on the sidewalk in front of their homes and workplace. He does a wonderful job of conjuring up the lives Gray and Carter lived and taking readers along on the researcher's trail through libraries and archives and, finally, to the fate of Henry Gray's unfinished book.

With passion and wit, Hayes explores the significance of Gray’s Anatomy and explains why it came to symbolize a turning point in medical history. But he does much, much more. Uncovering a treasure trove of forgotten letters and diaries, he illuminates the astonishing relationship between the fiercely gifted young anatomist Henry Gray and his younger collaborator H. V. Carter, whose exquisite anatomical illustrations are masterpieces of art and close observation. Tracing the triumphs and tragedies of these two extraordinary men, Hayes brings an equally extraordinary era–the mid-1800s–unforgettably to life.

But the journey Hayes takes us on is not only outward but inward–through the blood and tissue and organs of the human body– for The Anatomist chronicles Hayes’s year as a student of classical gross anatomy, performing with his own hands the dissections and examinations detailed by Henry Gray 150 years ago. As Hayes’s acquaintance with death deepens, he finds his understanding and appreciation of life deepening in unexpected and profoundly moving ways.

The Anatomist is engaging, informative, personal, and professional. Hayes brings his primary subject to life and reveals an enormous amount about the unknown second party to one of the most famous books ever written.

References: Reviews of the book in:

  1. Book Slut: October, 2011
  2. The New Yorker: February4, 2008
  3. The New York Times: Jan 13, 2008
  4. The Sydney Morning Herald: Feb 15, 2008

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