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Reviewed by Caroline Rance
A century and a half after its publication, Gray’s Anatomy is a familiar title even to those of us without a medical credential to our name. Now in its 40th edition and much expanded over the years, it retains the clarity and detail that set its original version apart from the cluttered anatomy texts of the early 19th century. Ruth Richardson presents a lively and detailed study of the first edition as it was researched, illustrated, written, published and sold.
Henry Gray himself is something of an enigmatic figure, distanced from us by a lack of extant evidence. Born in 1827, Gray became a student at St. George’s Hospital at the age of 18, and had the connections and ambition to make rapid progress in his surgical career. His dedication and ability are undoubted, but he left few documents of his own, and contemporaries were often diplomatically silent about his character. Given the paucity of information, Richardson has wisely not attempted a biography, but even so, much of her book is based on educated conjecture. At first, I did wonder whether this was going to grate – so much of the information is “probably” what would have happened, or “likely” to have been the case, that it took me some effort to stop playing “count the probablies” and concentrate on the text. Fortunately, Richardson’s speculations prove authoritative and grounded in exhaustive research, and she imparts confidence that if the evidence were there, she would have found it.
Gray worked with Henry Vandyke Carter on Anatomy Descriptive and Surgical for twenty months in 1855-7, dissecting cadavers at St George’s Dissecting Rooms in Kinnerton Street. Carter, struggling to finance his medical studies, was a talented artist who relied on commissions such as this to keep his own body and soul together.
By this time the Anatomy Act had put paid to the old days of bodysnatching, and the pair had access to unclaimed bodies from the workhouse and hospital wards. In one of the most engrossing sections of the book, Richardson reveals that this apparent leap of progress covered up some shady dealings – workhouse undertakers were persuaded to substitute young, fresh cadavers for the unclaimed but decrepit ones, and St George’s Hospital knowingly admitted dying paupers for their potential as dissection-room fodder. One chilling passage describes how something as simple as a lost letter could separate a family and leave women and children dependent on the workhouse. Those unfortunate enough to die there could well end up being dissected while their loved ones anxiously awaited news.
Carter’s lucid illustrations allowed these people some dignity. Accurate and yet anonymous, the images departed from the earlier gruesome fashion for showing dissected bodies in lifelike poses, holding up their own vital organs. Richardson movingly pays homage to the “defeated, dismembered, unconsidered, naked poor,” whose corpses have helped generations of medical students understand the human body. The Making of Mr. Gray’s Anatomy is in part a memorial to them.
Equally strong are the insights into Victorian book production, which Richardson describes in meticulous detail. JW Parker & Son, publishers of Anatomy Descriptive and Surgical, were genial and honest, and possessed an acute grasp of the market. They remained steadfastly committed to the book even in the face of adversity – and adversity there was, when the wood engravings of Carter’s illustrations turned out to be too big. Richardson explains the disastrous nature of this setback, and one can easily imagine the colour of the air in the printers’ workshop when the mistake was discovered. The Parkers’ superhuman efforts to get round the difficulties led to reviewers commenting favourably on the size of the pictures.
Richardson doesn’t pass judgement on Gray’s own character, rather leaving it to the reader to come to his or her own conclusions, but the man whose name continues to grace today’s medical textbooks doesn’t always come across in a good light. He was extraordinarily reluctant to share credit – early in his career he cheerfully trousered the £300 Astley Cooper Prize for an essay on the spleen without any acknowledgement for Carter’s illustrative work. When the time came to check the proofs for Anatomy Descriptive and Surgical, Gray struck out Carter’s prestigious new job title and downgraded his name to a smaller typeface, though the publishers sensed the injustice and arranged a compromise. A photograph of the title page, showing Carter’s name obliterated by Gray’s bold ink lines, provides an unexpectedly shocking and perplexing insight into the latter’s psyche.
If The Making of Mr. Gray’s Anatomy has a hero, it is Henry Vandyke Carter, whose stoical and conscientious character is no less impressive than his illustrations. Introspective and god-fearing, Carter could not bring himself to enter into the world of social networking necessary for success at St. George’s, and found his talent and amenable personality taken advantage of by the more ruthless people in his life. Excerpts from his diaries and letters reveal him as a good-hearted, gifted but unassuming person, who tried to suppress his rightful frustration as others claimed the credit for his efforts. When we see him finally assert himself, forge a successful career and find personal happiness, it’s occasion for a quiet cheer. Ruth Richardson’s fascinating book gives long-awaited recognition to this neglected figure.
Oxford University Press (2008) ISBN: 978-0199552993
Caroline Rance‘s debut historical novel “Kill-Grief” is out in April. She blogs for Strictly Writing and her own blogs Writing and All that and The Quack Doctor, where she takes a wry look at historical remedies for patients’ ills.