Part of his journey was to understand the importance of anatomy as a component of the medical curriculum, fueled by one of the few photographs that exists of Henry Gray. In this particular 1870 picture by Joseph Langhorn, Gray is in the anatomy laboratory at St. George’s Hospital with his students. Here is a Pinterest link to that photograph.
Bill Hayes was accepted as a participant in the anatomy laboratory for physical therapy students and later visited medical students in the anatomy lab. Just his observations and comments throughout the book on these activities is worth reading this book.
What is interesting is the lack of personal information on Henry Gray. To this date, we do not have information about his birth, either location or date. There is more information on his family that on the subject. Most agree that Henry Gray was born in 1827, but some propose 1825. Either way, there is no firm data. What we do know is that he died on June 12, 1861, having contracted smallpox most probably from his nephew Charles Gray. Henry Gray was 36 years old.
In his research, the author discovers Henry Gray’s collaborator and illustrator of the book: Henry Vandyke Carter, MD. Where Gray is obscure and with no personal information, Henry Carter writes a diary daily, and for some time he actually writes another diary that he calls “Reflections” on more personal and religious topics. Carter is a troubled, complicated individual blessed with incredible anatomical knowledge and drawing capabilities that can be seen throughout the book.
It is because of these diaries that we know Henry Carter and we can glimpse (almost at a distance) the character of Henry Gray, but it is not enough to elucidate his biography. In some ways it is like looking at an individual through a veil. You see him, but it is nebulous.
Much of the book is concentrated on Henry Carter, his life, his depression bouts, his self doubts and the work that he did illustrating Gray’s book. In some ways he is behind the scenes, and even though he did much of the dissection work and illustration, Henry Carter is mostly unknown to the anatomical world, as in may cases the medical illustrators are, with some notable exceptions.
Henry Carter is paid only 150 pounds for his work and even before getting paid he pays for a ticket to India where he accomplishes his objectives in life and in academia. Henry Carter eventually retires and comes back to England where he dies in 1897.
Bill Hayes and his partner visited rare book libraries at different universities and eventually go to London to visit areas and locations where Henry Gray lived and worked. There is a sense of accomplishment, but also a sense that we can almost touch the life of Henry Gray but fall short of seeing him.
The book ending is poignant, dealing with personal matters and thoughts on life and death. Eventually the author is very clear that the study of anatomy, although on dead subjects who donated their bodies to the universities is actually an activity that helps us understand life.
Bill Hayes is an awarded author of seven books, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and a photographer. More information about him and his activities at https://www.billhayes.com
Personal note: This is a book that I personally recommend and proud to add to my personal library. My one observation is that the author should have probably name the book “The Anatomists - A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy” as it is the story of the life of the two Henrys: Gray and Carter. In fact, I believe that Gray’s Anatomy could have been called “Gray’s and Carter’s Anatomy”, had history been slightly different – Dr. Miranda.