The Anatomist

The anatomy textbook written by Henry Gray, with stunning engravings by Henry Vandyke Carter, was first published in 1858. Never since out of print, now in its 37th edition, available in a dozen-plus languages with an estimated five million in sales, it is a classic text for generations of medical students. Curiously, little is known of author and artist. Why? Hayes addresses the puzzle from the perspective of Carter’s personal journals – the only source to describe the context of the textbook. What emerges is a portrait of a highly committed anatomist-artist, struggling with depression and an ambivalent family background. Carter used journals to self-castigate, to analyse faith scientifically and to micromanage days to the utmost efficiency. Gray is a prodigious figure whose achievements inspire Carter. Following their successful collaboration, their paths diverge – to turbulent ends. To introduce basic anatomy and anatomy-artistry, Hayes describes present-day university classes on anatomy and visits archives dating to 1555. Classes and visits intersperse with scenes of mid-Victorian London, when religious ideas were challenged by scientific ideas of medicine and evolution, when Britannia ruled the waves.

This fascinating biography/memoir explores the human story behind the creation of the classical medical text, Gray’s Anatomy. Bill Hayes uncovered an astonishing treasure trove of forgotten diaries and letters between the gifted anatomist Henry Gray and his little-known collaborator, the illustrator H.V. Carter, enabling him to bring the creation of the book and the relationship between the pair to life. As he read, he gradually began to identify with the obsessive, fastidious illustrator Gray, whose paper legacy was especially rich. Researching the book, Hayes also spent a year dissecting bodies at the University of California – and unexpectedly found himself hooked on the practice. The Anatomist is far more than a straightforward biography: in the process of writing, it became an intensely personal blend of three interlinked narratives: the creation of Gray’s Anatomy; the research of the book itself and Hayes’ personal reflections, and the story of his first-hand experiences with anatomy. An extraordinary, intriguing strange beast of a book.