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Gray’s Anatomy: A cult human anatomy textbook by Henry Gray

Stefan Andrews

Long before Grey’s Anatomy became our immediate association of the Shonda Rhimes medical  TV drama. We associated the title with Henry Gray’s Anatomy textbook – widely regarded as an extremely influential work on the very subject of human anatomy.

The textbook, originally written by Henry Gray and illustrated by Henry Vandyke Carter, has been continually revised and republished from its initial publication in 1858 to date. Earlier editions were called Anatomy: Descriptive and Surgical and Gray’s Anatomy: Descriptive and Applied. The textbook maintains its iconic status, as its latest, 41st edition, was published in September 2015.

Gray’s Anatomy 20th edition (1918) – Title page

Who was Henry Gray?

Gray was an English anatomist born in 1827 who particularly studied the development of endocrine glands and spleen. In 1853 he was also appointed Lecturer on Anatomy at St. George’s Hospital Medical School in London. A few years later, he approached his colleague Henry Vandyke Carter with an idea to create a low-priced and available anatomy textbook for all medical students.

Henry Gray, author of ‘Gray’s Anatomy’, photo credit

Carter accepted the invitation, hence the two of them dedicated to the work, dissecting unclaimed bodies from workhouses and hospital mortuaries. They worked on the first edition for 18 months straight and formed the basis of the book. The first copy of the textbook was published in 1858 by John William Parker in London.

It had 750 pages and contained 363 figures. Gray dedicated the book to Sir Collins Brodie, 1st Baronet, a notable English physiologist and surgeon who pioneered research into bone and joint disease.

Henry Vandyke Carter (self-portrait, 1870)

The first US edition followed quickly the next year, in 1859, and it already had slight alterations from the original copy. Gray proceeded his work on the textbook, as the material was alive and growing. A second, revised edition was published in the United Kingdom by 1860. Unfortunately, Gray was unable to provide further inputs for a new textbook, as his death came too soon in 1861. He died aged 34, as he was struck by an attack of confluent smallpox, whilst treating his son. Nevertheless, his name will always remain acknowledged and recognized.

In regards to the illustrator of the book, Carter – he was already outside Britain by 1961. He had joined the Indian Medical Service where he worked as a professor of anatomy. He remained in Bombay through most of his career until his retirement in 1888. Carter was appointed “Honorary Deputy Surgeon-General and Honorary Surgeon to the Queen”.

Anyways, the textbook was set on a journey of its own, through multiple publishing houses around the US and the UK, and was in the hands of numerous new editors and contributors.

The Gray’s Anatomy textbook

Despite the death of Gray, the book kept on having a life of its own. It was much-praised, hence others joined and started to make their contributions. Longman’s publication reportedly began in 1863, after their acquisition of the J.W.Parker publishing business.

The textbook was not only appraised of the written material and the work done by Gray, but many also acknowledged it for its illustrations as well, which made the very soul of the book. They were so good that the publishers of the first edition wanted to ascribe joint authorship of the book to Carter as well. They regarded them as noteworthy as the text itself, but Gray had objected on that matter.

An illustration from the American 1918 edition

In the following decades, many publishing houses and editors will have put their fingers on the textbook, which resulted with a number of mismatches between British and American editions numberings.

Through the years, it all led to a creation of two central “flavors” or “branches” of Gray’s Anatomy – the US and the British one. But the number of editions became overwhelming.  This would cause a lot of misunderstandings and confusing, especially when quoting from the book, or trying to purchase some particular edition.

Beyond Grey’s Anatomy

The American medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy, airing for over a decade now, is not the only factor that had helped popularization of the textbook. In fact, the cultural influence of the book has been huge in the past.

For instance, in one scene in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Tom catches Becky Thatcher looking at a book, of which one page is torn apart. The book is suggested to be Gray’s Anatomy. The textbook also makes a brief appearance in the 1991 film, The Addams Family, where Granny is seen to make new recipes by combining Gray’s Anatomy with other more “normal cookbooks”.

The book appears in an episode of the TV series House, along with Dr. House and Dr. Wilson, and in the 2013 movie “Diana”, starring Naomi Watts who plays Princess Diana, and receives a copy of the textbook in one of the scenes.

Bones of the left hand. Volar surface. Another illustration from the American 1918 edition.

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Last but not least, The Star Trek: Voyager has also brought the textbook to the future, as in one of the episodes, Harry Kim tries to create a new Emergency Medical Hologram, but the hologram is only able to recite the entire text of Gray’s Anatomy instead of actually helping patients.

Stefan Andrews

Stefan is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to The Vintage News. He is a graduate in Literature. He also runs a blog – This City Knows.