The book commonly referred to as Gray’s Anatomy has never been out of print, since it was first published in 1858. It has been through umpteump editions, here in the States and in the Mother Country, and has become one of those very, very few reference books almost everybody knows about. As far as Gray himself is concerned, well, that’s rather a sad story. Poor Gray did not live very long, dying at age 34. So, who was this guy, who came up with such an obviously useful work? You can find out more, not a whole lot more, but more from a new life of the said Gray called, appropriately The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy, by Bill Hayes, Ballantine, 304 pp., $24.95. A lot of people pass through life without leaving much of a wake, and Gray was one of them, which is odd, considering his importance. No manuscripts, journals, letters or other documents of his survive, except those that were written to and saved by other people. Gray did write to his collaborator, H.V. Carter who illustrated the text, and whose name did not always get on the title page in subsequent editions, and these letters are about all a biographer has to go on. Still, it’s better than nothing, and you work with what you have.
There’s a review on the book in the Seattle newspaper:
PS. I did a little checking and found that Gray did not make it into the Dictionary of National Biography, at least not into the older edition. He’s in Webster’s New Biographical Dictionary, and in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, and there is uncertainy about both where he was born and when: London, and 1825/1827 are suggested. He was one of four kids and his father was “a private messenger to George IV and William IV”. There is no information about his mother.Not poor. No record of early education. Studied Medicine and worked most of his practicing career at St. George’s Hospital in London. He was very diligent and skilled in his use of the microscope. He was very well regarded professionally as a “lucid teacher of anatomy”, a complement right there. What made his book popular was the clarity of arrangement and description, as well as the illustrations, often based on fresh dissections, and drawn by Henry Vandyke Carter. The title of the first edition was Anatomy, descriptive and surgical and that gives a clue to the work’s utility and popularity. Gray introduced hints on surgical techniques and methods into the text, which was an innovation. He died from smallpox,which he contracted while treating a nephew.
PPS. While trolling for blog content, I stumbled on a review of this book in the New York Sun which adds something, in fact a good bit. Since he died of small pox Gray’s papers may have been burned deliberately in an effort to prevent an outbreak. H.V. Carter completed his medical studies and then went on to a long career in the Indian Medical Service. Carter kept a diary, and a lot of the book is based on his notes and comments.
And finally, I remember that some years ago the Curator of our historical section explained to a group of touring physicians some interesting features of the first American edition of Gray’s. The publisher wanted to color the illustrations, but color printing was a long way off, so, the B&W drawings were handed to teams, mostly women, each one of whom would color a particular structure, and then pass it on to the next person, who would color something else, in a kind of assembly line process. At the end the sheets were collated, re-assembled and then bound. That’s a lot of coloring, but it was a clever solution,.We can only hope that the ladies switched off now and then, as an antidote to boredom.