St. George’s Hospital stood stately and regal in a corner of London’s Hyde Park, its raised colonnaded entrance beckoning visitors inside its healing walls. Now a posh hotel called The Lanesborough (below), St. George’s in 1858 birthed a worldwide bestseller from its dissection and post-mortem rooms. The book would furnish students for a dozen decades to come with critical information they needed to practice medicine.
The book was Gray’s Anatomy: Anatomy Descriptive and Surgical, known as simply Gray’s. The men who wrote and illustrated the book were both named Henry — Henry Gray, who wrote all the words, and Henry Vandyke Carter, who created all the illustrations.
In 1855 Gray had an idea for a detailed anatomy book for students. He approached Carter, who was a talented artist and also a physician, about joining forces to publish such a book. Carter considered the idea interesting, but he wasn’t sure it could work. He wrote in his diary, “Little to record. Gray made proposal to assist by drawings in bringing out a Manual for students: a good idea but did not come to any plan … too exacting.”
Three years later — an incredibly short period of time to produce and publish such a book — the first copies of Gray’s hit bookstores. Seven hundred eighty-two pages strong, the tome promptly became a bestseller throughout Europe. It was published a year later by Blanchard and Lea, a prestigious Philadelphia publishing house, and became a bestseller in the United States as well.
The book is now in its 42nd edition, and its growth and popularity has been remarkable. From a size of 6×9 to 9×12, from 782 pages to 1,606, from just over three pounds to more than ten, and from 1£ 8 pence (about $5 in 1860) to $230 in 2022, the book remains a foundational text for healthcare students of all kinds.
Henry Gray’s detailed, voluminous descriptions provided the depth and clarity of information medical students needed. Carter’s 363 finely detailed illustrations, originally drawn on paper but later drawn on woodblock, gave students clear and compelling visual references to the body’s inner anatomy. Even today anyone with even a passing knowledge of Gray’s could probably identify an H. V. Carter image (below) with just a glance.
Ruth Richardson, in her superb work, The Making of Mr Gray’s Anatomy, captures the value of Carter’s images this way.
One of the most distinctive qualities in Carter’s illustrations is that they are a look and say all on their own. They are definitely visual, but also verbal. When you open an illustrated page in Gray’s, especially when the image is a goodly size, it’s hard to look first at the text. The eye is drawn to the illustrations, with their physical demonstration of what Gray’s words endeavour to describe in the adjacent letterpress. Carter’s illustrations lay out the body, showing behind, above, below, concave, smooth, passes through, arises from, and lies along; and at the same time telling trapezius, clavicle, sternum, hyoid, sterno-thyroid. And as you look, you’re already down deep in the structures, discerning their names and shapes for yourself as you go. Even without being conscious of thinking, the eye takes in the structure and its name at the same time.
Carter went on to teach anatomy in Bombay, India, where he had lived since the book published. He returned to England in 1888, married for a second time (his first wife having died), contracted tuberculosis and died in 1897. He was sixty-five.
Gray’s life proved tragic. Three years after Gray’s was published, Gray’s nephew, Charles, contracted the virus that causes smallpox. In treating the lad, Gray himself developed the disease. Charles survived, his uncle did not. Gray died in 1861 at age thirty-four.
The book the two Henrys made continues to sell around the world, cementing the men’s legacy for generations to come.