Review

The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray's Anatomy

by Bill Hayes

With
THE ANATOMIST Bill Hayes set out to write a biography of Henry
Gray, the author of GRAY'S ANATOMY. But information on Gray was
hard to come by, and what Hayes ended up writing is an interesting
blend of biography (of Gray and also of Henry Carter, the
illustrator of the text), memoir, the history of Victorian medicine
and an introduction to the subject of anatomy itself.


Henry Gray was a medical prodigy when, in his 20s, he set out to
write an anatomy book that he hoped would be a useful guide for
students, with straightforward language and clear illustrations
representing the latest understanding on the inner workings of the
human body. For his illustrator he chose Henry Vandyke Carter, an
even younger man who he had taught and collaborated with.


Carter, the son of artists, was a brooding and religious medical
student whose artistic talent was already recognized by many of the
doctors at the hospital --- St. George's in London --- where he
studied. Before working on the anatomy book with Gray, he had
illustrated another text for him about the human spleen. Carter
longed for a career as a working doctor, however, and the detailed
and amazing work he did for Gray was simply a chance to work with
his mentor and earn a little extra money. While Gray died young,
leaving barely a trace of his personal life beyond St. George's,
Carter spent years in India, made some significant medical
discoveries and had a scandalous romance with a married woman he
met there.


Most of Hayes's story is Carter's story. Carter kept diaries and
wrote many extant letters that Hayes used to piece together how
GRAY'S ANATOMY came to be. Carter is a compelling character;
talented, spiritual, lonely and often depressed, he saw himself as
the dark shadow to Gray's bright star. In THE ANATOMIST, Hayes
brings Carter's tale into a spotlight that he would've both
publicly shied away from and privately basked in. By the end,
readers still know next to nothing about Henry Gray and very little
about the process in which the anatomy book was created, but they
do learn a great deal about the interesting Henry Carter and the
world of European medicine circa 1850.


While there was little by way of records or archives on Gray, Hayes
wanted to throw himself into the subject that made Gray famous. So
as he worked on the book, he took a number of anatomy classes at a
local university. Along with first-year pharmacy students, aspiring
physical therapists and third-year medical students, Hayes learned
all about gross anatomy by dissecting cadavers. This yields some of
the most interesting moments in the book and some of the most
annoying.


Hayes succeeds in tying in the dissections he performs in class
with both the history of medicine and anatomy, and the story of
Gray and Carter. However, we are to believe that Hayes becomes
something of an anatomist himself, often correcting and teaching
the students he spends time with in the anatomy labs, even though
he starts out the process with zero anatomy background. His ego
here often distracts from the otherwise engaging story. THE
ANATOMIST was intended to focus on the collaboration of Gray and
Carter on GRAY'S ANATOMY, but it often feels like an egocentric bit
of meta-nonfiction: a book that explores its own creation.


Still, the story of Gray and Carter, personal and professional, is
worth telling, and THE ANATOMIST will send readers to their shelves
to dust off copies of GRAY'S ANATOMY for a closer look, or to the
bookstore to find the historic and influential tome that inspired
Hayes in the first place.


   













Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on December 22, 2010

The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray's Anatomy
by Bill Hayes

  • Publication Date: December 26, 2007
  • Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345456890
  • ISBN-13: 9780345456892