Today, the term “Gray’s Anatomy” has become world-famous, from numerous cultural references and the extensive use by almost all medical students. Despite this, little is actually known about the man behind the book, Henry Gray.

As a student, Gray performed dissections himself

Born in Belgravia, London in 1827, he was only 31 years old when he published the tome. He was one of four children and born to wealthy parents, as his father was a private messenger for King George IV and King William IV. On 6 May 1845, he joined St George’s Hospital as a medical student, where he was to stay for his lifelong career as well.

Henry Gray was an English anatomist and surgeon, best remembered for his book, ‘Gray’s Anatomy’.
Henry Gray was an English anatomist and surgeon, best remembered for his book, ‘Gray’s Anatomy’.

Those who knew him described him as a meticulous and methodical worker who studied the anatomy by performing each dissection himself. It was unusual in those days, as students would normally watch while professors carried them out.

While still a student, he published a paper demonstrating that the retina develops from a protrusion of the brain. The paper was one of the earliest major accounts of the development of the layers of the retina, which won him the Royal College of Surgeons’ Triennial Prize.

Gray’s work impressed the scientific community

Following completion of his medical degree, Gray became qualified as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. He stayed on at the hospital to work as a house surgeon for a year before being appointed as a Demonstrator of Anatomy in 1852 and then Lecturer of Anatomy in 1853.

That same year, at only 25 years old, he was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society after impressing scholars with his papers on the development of the spleen, adrenal glands and thyroids in chicks.

From his work, Gray proved that these three organs, with the thymus, should be classified in one group. Now known as the endocrine glands, at the time, he had called them the “ductless glands”.

From his observations, Gray grouped the ductless glands together based on their similarity of origin, their structure in the first stages of development and the manner in which they develop throughout the foetal period. His dissertation, ‘On the structure and Use of Spleen’, won him the Astley Cooper prize and 300 guineas.

The production of the anatomy textbook

In 1855, 28-year-old Gray began thinking about producing an accessible and inexpensive textbook on anatomy. He approached his friend, a skilled draughtsman and former Demonstrator of Anatomy, Henry Vandyke Carter, to produce the illustrations for the book.

The pair worked on the project for 18 months, carrying out dissections to gain firsthand knowledge of human anatomy. Through the Anatomy Act of 1832, which allowed doctors, teachers of anatomy and medical students to obtain unclaimed corpses from hospital mortuaries, they were able to study the organs in detail.

The textbook was published as ‘Anatomy: Descriptive and Surgical’ in 1858, and was 750 pages long with 363 detailed drawings. The book – which is presently in its 41st edition – became wildly successful despite strong competition. The achievement was due to its lucidity and logic, the close arrangement of the text and illustrations, as well as the written remarks on surgical anatomy.

Gray’s career continued to flourish, becoming curator of the St George Hospital Museum and a surgeon at St James’ Infirmary.

He prepared a second, revised edition in 1860 but sadly died the following year, 34 years old at the time. His death came on the day of his interview for the position of assistant surgeon at St George’s Hospital, having contracted confluent smallpox from his nephew who he treated for the condition. MIMS

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