First published in 1858, Anatomy, Descriptive and Surgical secured its author, Henry Gray (1827-1861), an enduring place in the annals of medicine and the history of art. A standard reference on the structure of the human body, the book is available today in its 40th print edition and in an abridged version online.1 In The Making of Mr. Gray’s Anatomy: Bodies, Books, Fortune, Fame, Ruth Richardson now illuminates the context from which this famous tome emerged in Victorian London. Richardson is a research fellow in history at the University of Hertfordshire; her discussion touches on everything from hospitals, the training of surgeons, and the introduction of anesthesia to bookshops and the vagaries of the publishing industry. Several intriguing personalities emerge in the course of this motley history. Surprisingly, the character of Gray himself pales alongside his more sympathetic enablers: his publishers, John William Parker & Son; the book’s unjustly overlooked illustrator, Henry Vandyke Carter; and the anonymous poor whose corpses served Gray’s enterprise.
Both Gray and Carter (1831-1897) taught anatomy at the medical school of London’s St. George’s Hospital, in a lofty building repurposed today for artists’ studios. Gray was brilliant, privileged and, as Richardson limns him, fiercely ambitious—a careerist using others to advance his interests. He was 28 when he proposed the idea for a textbook to his diligent junior colleague. Gray needed illustrations to accompany the descriptions he would write; Carter needed money. Richardson laments the paucity of personal information available on Gray: when he died of smallpox just three years after his book was published, all his effects apparently were burned, leaving the historian little to go on. But something of his makeup is revealed in his failure to credit the sources from which he lifted many passages in Gray’s Anatomy verbatim and, even more egregiously, in his downgrading of Carter’s contributions. Richardson reproduces Gray’s corrected proof for the book’s title page and notes how he slashed Carter’s name, indicating a smaller type size, and deleted his colleague’s prestigious new title, Professor of Anatomy at Grant College, Bombay.
Securing this position in the Indian Medical Service was a coup for Carter, tired as he was of his role as Gray’s underling at St. George’s. Relying on letters and diaries, Richardson develops a sense of Carter’s inner life, his sensitivities, doubts, aspirations. Though his father was a marine painter and his brother studied art at the Royal Academy, Carter had no interest in art as a profession. His drawing skills were merely a tool in his pursuit of medical research and a means, in his words, of “subsidiary employment.” Remarkably, to produce the 363 engravings for Gray’s Anatomy, he drew directly on the woodblocks, working in reverse himself instead of delegating others to transfer his images to the boxwood ends. He was also responsible for accurately inscribing all the parts he depicted. When he borrowed a previously published illustration, he carefully cited its source, in contrast to Gray’s cavalier plagiarism.
Richardson applauds Carter’s lack of an art-school education and consequent avoidance of classicizing tendencies, and considers his illustrations neither idealized nor excessively realistic, but respectful of the dead he dissected. Citing an incident at St. George’s when Carter fainted during an operation on a child, she portrays him as tenderhearted, avoiding in his drawings brutality to both the body-subject and its students. She bristles at art historian Martin Kemp’s description of Gray’s illustrations as technical and plain,2 arguing tautologically that “not to see their artistry is to miss their art.” Of course Carter’s non-style is itself a style, expressing a worldview in which empiricism replaced imagination as a way to truth. He departed from a tradition in anatomical illustration that rendered cadavers in heroic postures, often in landscape settings, as in Andreas Vesalius’s classic De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Structure of the Human Body, 1543). Carter dispenses with the motif of the animated corpse, never depicting the body in its entirety—only in isolated parts. His challenge was to extract the essential detail, to lead the student through what Richardson calls the “secrets of the human organism,” which were then still to be discovered and verified, “drawing at the edge of what was known.” A certain degree of abstraction or—pace Richardson—idealization was required for Carter’s didactic purposes; this may also be why Gray’s subsequent editors, even as photographic reproductions became technologically feasible and affordable, preferred the original drawings to anatomical photographs or X-rays until well into the 20th century.3
Among the pictorial conventions Carter rejected was the depiction of the cadaver opening its own skin to exhibit internal organs, “in a curious form of collusion,” Richardson notes, “between the living and the dead”—or, it seems to me, an unconscious denial of the involuntary nature of the corpse’s revelations. Indeed, the author devotes a disturbing chapter to the amoral business of procuring bodies for scientific study in the 19th century. With the rise of professional medical schools, a shady trade flourished to satisfy the increased demand for corpses. Intended to combat grave robbery, the Anatomy Act of 1832 authorized the use of the bodies of people who died in institutions if they were not claimed by next of kin within 48 hours. Richardson shows how hospitals duped families by delaying notification of death or by substituting, allegedly by mistake, old bodies for younger, more pedagogically desirable specimens. Those ending up on the slab were, overwhelmingly, the socially disadvantaged and/or solitary. Finding suspicious discrepancies in extant hospital records, Richardson calls these hapless subjects “the disappeared.” She estimates that the bodies of several adult men, one or two women, and a child provided the raw material for Gray’s Anatomy.
That book is a guide for dissecting a body. (“The head being shaved,” writes Gray, “and a block placed beneath the back of the neck, make a vertical incision through the skin, commencing at the root of the nose.”)4 My paperback copy, borrowed from an artist friend, is smudged with paint, but early editions of Gray’s were destined for use in the dissecting room, not the studio; the book appears in period photographs, propped open on operating tables or held by medical students gathered around supine cadavers.5 And while there is much in Richardson’s study that lies beyond the purview of art-world audiences—the signal exception being her foregrounding of Carter’s achievements—The Making of Mr. Gray’s Anatomy evokes a parallel history of artists as seekers of direct knowledge of the body, from Leonardo to Eakins. Coincidentally (or not), the first American edition of Gray’s was brought out in 1859 in Philadelphia, where within a few years Eakins was enrolled in anatomy courses at Jefferson Medical College, dissecting his first cadaver while he was still in his teens. The outrage that greeted his Gross Clinic (1875) had much to do with perceptions of how surgeons at that time arrived at their expertise. Jefferson relied on body snatchers to supply corpses for teaching, and Eakins’s viewers thus associated his surgical scene with dubious “resurrectionists” and their ruthless professional clientele.6
While Eakins and others examined mortal remains to create images of the body that were true to life, artists today take cadavers as their subjects in order to ponder the horrible fact of death itself. Photographers Sue Fox, Andres Serrano and Jeffrey Silverthorne have visited morgues, and Joel-Peter Witkin searches the globe for legally obtainable human remains for use in his studio. The greatest irony one might consider after reading Richardson’s account is the phenomenon of Gunther von Hagens’s “Body Worlds” exhibition, a contemporary version of Gray’s Anatomy as popular spectacle.7 Launched in 1995 and still touring internationally, “Body Worlds” features actual plastinated cadavers whose every muscle, nerve or blood vessel is made visible. Because von Hagens fancies himself an artist, he poses his subjects as if they were sculptures: there is a swordsman, an archer, a man kneeling in prayer. Though the bodies he manipulates are donated, not “resurrected,” his ethics still seem questionable, as he reintroduces, unscientifically, the animated corpse that Carter so boldly eschewed.
1 Susan Standring et al., eds., Gray’s Anatomy: The Anatomical Basis of Clinical Practice, 40th rev. ed., Edinburgh, Churchill Livingston/Elsevier, 2008. The abridged 20th edition, Philadelphia, Lea and Febiger, 1918, is available at www.bartleby.com.
2 Martin Kemp, “Gray’s Greyness,” Visualisations: The Nature Book of Art and Science, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 71.
4 Henry Gray, Gray’s Anatomy, Philadelphia, Running Press, 1974, p. 298.
5 See James Edmondson and John Harley Warner, Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930,
New York, Blast Books, 2009, passim.
6 In Painting the Dark Side: Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2004, Sarah Burns cites an 1882 report in the Philadelphia Press exposing the theft of bodies for Jefferson Medical College from the nearby African-American Lebanon Cemetery.
7 Von Hagens’s exhibitions are not to be confused with many traveling copycat shows such as “Bodies: The Exhibition,” which has aroused protest over the suspiciously unverifiable sources of its cadavers in China; these anonymous bodies are not donated but, as exhibition disclaimers concede, “unclaimed.”
Sue Taylor is professor of art history at Portland State University, Oregon.