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150 years of Gray's "blood-stained copies"

When I was a medical student, dissection of the human body was not my favourite past time. The overpowering smell of formalin made it a little unattractive. However, there is no better way of learning anatomy than dissecting the human cadaver. Second best was studying Gray's Anatomy, a thick textbook with medical illustrations that every medical student owned. I have my copy, and so does my partner, and we still refer to it on occasion.


A recent edition of Gray's Anatomy

As the Telegraph rather sensationally reports, 2008 is Gray's 150th anniversary, and "generations of doctors worldwide have pored over blood-stained copies of Gray's Anatomy. The current 39th edition runs to 1,600 pages, offers 2,260 illustrations, weighs about 11 lb, is available online and remains the definitive anatomical reference work".

Our patients have recently become aware of Gray's Anatomy due to a popular hospital human-interest drama which plays under the slightly changed name Grey's Anatomy. One patient glanced meaningfully at my volume, giving me the impression that he valued my interest in the television show, which undoubtedly offered me inspiration when I was stuck for a diagnosis.

The book was born when Henry Gray and Henry Vandyke Carter, both surgeons at St George's Hospital in London, "began collaborating to produce a practical anatomy textbook for their students in 1855".

They performed dissections together for 18 months, Gray writing the text and Carter making the precise and "exquisite" illustrations. "The ambitious and ebullient Gray saw the book to publication, but the self-effacing Carter sailed for India and a career in tropical medicine".

The book became a runaway success, and some feel that Carter was shortchanged, since Gray pocketed the royalties and became famous. However, according to Cat, who has looked them both up in the Oxford DNB, the real story is a little different.

Carter had the satisfaction of establishing hospitals in India and identifying relapsing fever. His research, published in 1882 under the title of Spirillum Fever—Synonyms, Famine, or Relapsing Fever—as Seen in Western India, won him the British Medical Association's Stewart pathological prize. He was also instrumental in establishing, in 1884, a course for women doctors at Grant Medical College. When he retired to Yorkshire, he became an honorary surgeon to Queen Victoria.

Gray's success was short-lived. At the age of thirty-four he caught smallpox from his nephew, and died.

The Making of Mr Gray's Anatomy by Dr Ruth Richardson will be published by Oxford University Press in September. An exhibition of Carter's work opens this Thursday at the Royal College of Surgeons of England.