October 2011

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

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

At the beginning of the school year I was in my local bookstore when a group of teenage boys came in to pick up their Gray's Anatomy coloring books. This ubiquitous guide is now available in a format that targets general science students both in high school and college, making anatomy lessons far easier than standard textbook study. The boys thought the book was alternately "gross" and "cool" but likely didn't have any idea who Gray was or that the book was over one hundred fifty years old and has sold five million copies. Author Bill Hayes did wonder who wrote Gray's Anatomy, however, a book that everyone knows of and yet no one seems to know anything about. His investigation of the book's origins led him into the life of Henry Gray and also the discovery of his publishing partner, fellow doctor and medical artist Henry Carter. His research led him into the classroom as he began a personal study of the human body in an effort to learn as Gray and Carter did. The result is The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray's Anatomy is a book with drama, mystery, and a surprisingly doomed Victorian romance.

From the very beginning, when he pulls his copy of Gray's Anatomy off the bookshelf, Hayes is part of this story. One problem he encounters early on is the dearth of information about Gray, and because of that, the sections of the book focused on his own experiences in anatomy classes at UCSF are perhaps longer and more detailed than readers might expect. Hayes's experiences make for very interesting reading, however, both in what they reveal about the human body and in how those in the medical and pharmacology fields learn how to take care of the human body. The author is endlessly curious about the classes he audits. It's all literally very hands on, but Hayes doesn't shy away from the grotesque and he does an excellent job bringing readers along for the ride. 

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 religious beliefs and depression, and the bone-crushing pressure he felt to achieve professional success, without starving to death first. But in the middle of the higher purpose there are also sibling illnesses, the minutiae of trying to find positions and the question of just what a twenty-something physician wants to do with his life: become a country doctor? enlist with the navy? go exploring? 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 but was most certainly a key point in Carter's life.

In the midst of writing Gray's Anatomy, 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. In the final pages, it is Hayes's story that takes center stage. For readers who will have come to enjoy the congenial narrator's adventures, it's a sad moment to read of his sudden personal loss. In all of his time studying Gray's Anatomy and human dissection firsthand, Hayes realizes that his experience with death has actually been minimal. In this regard he is far removed from Gray and Carter's experiences, until sadly, he learns, as they did, just what it means to lose someone you care about. 

Gray's Anatomy 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. This is clearly the work of an accomplished science writer. 

The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray's Anatomy by Bill Hayes
Bellevue Literary Press
ISBN 978-1934137215  
250 pages