The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray's Anatomy

The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray's Anatomy

by Bill Hayes


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“A wonderful writer, Bill Hayes tells the multi-layered story of the two extraordinary young men who produced the most famous medical text of all time - a turning point in medical history, and a continuing influence and inspiration for artists, doctors and anatomists a century and a half later. Part memoir, part biography, part guided tour into the marvels of the human body, The Anatomist deserves a place on every bookshelf. And if you do not already have a copy of Gray's Anatomy, Bill Hayes's remarkable account will surely inspire you to get one.” - Oliver Sacks, author and neurologist

“All laud and honor to Hayes. In perusing the body's 650 muscles and 206 bones, he has made the case that we are . . . 'fearfully and wonderfully made.'”—The Washington Post

“Prose both lucid and arrestingly beautiful.”—Publishers Weekly

The classic medical text known as Gray's Anatomy is one of the most famous books ever created. In this masterly work of creative nonfiction, Bill Hayes uncovers the extraordinary lives of the seminal volume's author and illustrator while providing a “scalpel's-eye” view into the ingenuity of the human body.

Bill Hayes is the best-selling author of Sleep Demons and Five Quarts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781934137215
Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press
Publication date: 09/01/2009
Pages: 250
Sales rank: 418,664
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Bill Hayes is the author of the national bestseller "Sleep Demons: An Insomniac's Memoir" and "Five Quarts: A Personal and Natural History of Blood." His work has been published in The New York Times Magazine and Details, among other publications. He has also been featured on many NPR programs as well as the Discovery Health Channel.

Read an Excerpt


On the first day of class, i am mistaken for a teaching

assistant six times, which, on the one hand, simply tells me I’m old— a good twenty years older than the average student—but, on the other hand, seems to imply that I look as if I belong. Choosing the glass half full, I smile through each mistaken identity.

The class size is 120 (150 if you count the cadavers). We had been warned that some students are overwhelmed by the first sight of the dead bodies. And sure enough, some students clearly are. But I am more freaked out by the woman in the gas mask. What does she know that the rest of us don’t?

“Class? Hello?” comes a disembodied voice, tinnily amplified. This is Sexton Sutherland, one of the three professors, although I cannot see him for the crowd. “Before we get started, some housekeeping rules . . .”

The first thing he mentions is the color-coded wastebaskets: red is for tissue (the human type) and white is for regular garbage, and, please, please don’t mix them up. Likewise with the sinks: use only the stainless steel for this and the porcelain for that, though I cannot catch the specifics for all the rustling. The mention of first- aid protocol finally brings the room to complete silence. And when Dr. Sutherland directs everyone’s attention to the emergency biohazard showers in each corner of the lab, I find a sea of eyes sweeping over me, as I happen to be standing right next to one of them. Towel, anyone?

“Finally, just some basic etiquette for the weeks to come: No eating your lunch in here.” This elicits a collective ewwwww. “No music. Please don’t take any pictures. And try to keep your voices down. Laughter’s okay,” Dr. Sutherland adds. “We love laughter in the lab— it’s a great way to release emotions. But not at the expense of the wonderful people who’ve donated their bodies to our program.” He lets that sink in for a moment. “Okay, let’s get going.”

A class orientation had been held the day before in a lecture hall downstairs. Afterward, we were invited to check out the lab and, as Dr. Sutherland had said in a masterful sweep of understatement, “to get comfortable with ‘the surroundings,’ ” by which he meant the reclining dead. About half the class had made the trip up to the thirteenth floor, myself included. I was anxious to put glimpsing the cadavers for the first time behind me. And I am glad I did.

If that was the orientation, however, this is more like disorientation. I am not sure what to do or where to go exactly, so I grab the crisp new scrubs from my gym bag, pull them over my head, and join the large group being led by Dana Rohde, interim director of the anatomy course for the University of California–San Francisco School of Pharmacy, whom I had met earlier. Using one cadaver as a demo model, she gives a brief overview of the afternoon’s assignment; pauses to explain how to put a fresh blade onto a scalpel; does a quick scan to see that we are all wearing the mandatory rubber gloves; and adds finally, “I’ll be back to see how you’re doing in half an hour.” Dr. Rohde then stands there for a moment, wearing the look of a swimming instructor who finds her class still standing on the deck of the pool: Why aren’t you wet yet?

Six of us arrange ourselves around cadaver number 4, but rather than looking at the naked female body lying before us, we all stare at one another.

“I haven’t dissected anything since high school biology,” one of the three women admits, breaking the ice. “And that was a frog.”

This seems like the right moment to make an admission of my own: “I should tell you, I am not a student here. Dr. Rohde gave me permission to come to your lectures and labs. I’m just going to be an observer.”

All but one of them look as though they would pay to change places with me. Gergen, the exception, a tall, husky, hairy guy who says he has never dissected anything in his life, cheerfully volunteers to begin the dissection. Now, technically, it will be Gergen’s first cut, but not this body’s. Like all the cadavers used in this ten-week class in gross anatomy, it was worked on during a previous course. Instead of fresh bodies like those routinely autopsied on CSI—blue- lipped and gray but still lifelike—these are closer to something from a Discovery Channel special. The cadavers are shrunken like unwrapped Egyptian mummies. The skin, where still intact, is tan and leathery, and the exposed inner flesh is as dark and dried as beef jerky. The heads, hands, and feet are wrapped in strips of gauze, which gives the impression that they had been badly burned. As Dr. Sutherland explained during the orientation, the gauze serves two functions: it helps preserve the delicate parts for a longer period, and it also protects us, in a sense.

“It’s usually most impactful to see the hands or the face,” he had said, treading carefully with his words, “because that’s really what represents a person’s identity.” When dissecting other parts, one quickly learns to dissociate, but this is much harder when you see the eyes or the mouth. Emotions can come up unexpectedly, he then added. “Sometimes, you’ll be dissecting away—maybe you’re halfway through the course—and then you’ll remove a piece of gauze and there’s a tattoo and you just stop cold. Or maybe you see nail polish.” Any individualizing mark is a stark reminder that this is not just a body but somebody. As Dr. Sutherland had explained, this is one reason why the first dissection is in a relatively neutral location, the thorax, otherwise known as the chest.

Though I am the sole spectator here today, I take comfort in knowing I am well represented in history. Human dissection has been a riveting spectacle for centuries, and the curious, whether by invitation or paid ticket, have long pressed into crowded rooms, craning necks and breathing through perfumed handkerchiefs, to witness that first ghastly slice, then the next, and the next. In Europe, the need to create a space conducive to teaching, learning, and observing resulted in the Western world’s first “anatomical theater,” built in Italy in 1594 at the University of Padua. A steeply raked amphitheater that accommodated three hundred, it became the model for other facilities that sprang up at competing schools, including the College of Physicians in London. Always at the center was the dissecting table, with the first circle of spectators barely a blood spurt removed. At UCSF, I and my fellow novice anatomists stand not in a theater but in a no-frills lab. In order to get the best view of what is being dissected at our table, I have to perch on the rungs of a metal stool.

Our cadaver, who in life probably stood no more than five foot two, does not bear the classic “Y” incision of an autopsy (shoulders to sternum, then straight down the abdomen to the pubis). Instead, a kind of double doorway was incised in her chest: the skin cut across the collarbones as well as beneath the ribs—roughly marking the top and bottom of the thorax—and then sliced down the middle. Before making a new incision, we need to “unpack” the previous work. As Laura reads instructions from the lab guide, Gergen folds back the two large panels of skin, then grasps the edges of the underlying breastplate, a solid shield of ribs and muscles that had been precut with a surgical saw. Gergen lifts, and a fresh wave of fumes escapes from the cadaver, making all of us flinch.

Peering down, I can see why the thorax was once known as the “pantry” of the body. It is a deep, squarish cavity packed full of various objects, one of which Gergen must now remove: a lung. He slips his left hand into the cavity and feels for “the root of the lung,” a short, fat tube that is not at the bottom of the lung, as one might imagine a root should be, but toward the top, connecting it to the windpipe. “Now what?” Gergen asks.

Laura, who is as small and slim as Gergen is large, scrambles to find the next instruction. “Let’s see here—‘Cut through the root of the lung superiorly and continue inferiorly through the pulmonary ligament.’ ”


“Top to bottom—slice it off—I think.”

Although Gergen does the actual cutting, the rest of us, in spirit at least, help him hold the scalpel steady: Laura, Amy, Miriam, and Massoud are the fingers folded in around him, and I, opposite them, am the thumb. Gergen then steps back, indicating to Laura that she may do the honors. Biting her lower lip, she reaches into the thoracic cavity and, after a little tugging, frees the right lung. The size of a wadded-up T-shirt, it looks like a wet mound of gray taffeta. All six of us wear identical triumphant smiles, as if we have delivered a baby.

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Anatomist: A True Story of Gray's Anatomy 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was fun. It isn't really about Gray, but mostly about a combination of the experience of the author (Bill Hayes) while studying anatomy at UCSF and the life of H.V. Carter, the often-overlooked illustrator of Gray's Anatomy (the binding on the book originally read: Gray Anatomy Carter) Recommended for semi-light semi-science reading!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thought The Anatomist was very enjoyable. It doesn't have very much information about Gray in it, but a lot of information about the illustrator of Gray's Anatomy named Henry Carter. Most of the book is Hayes explaining what information he got out of Carter's journal. But what made the book interesting is how he was able to participate in some lab classes with medical students. They would operate on real bodies from people who donated them for learning. I liked learning the history of Anatomy and what anatomists believed they could get information from at the time and why they couldn't just examine a human body. I also found it fascinating that there are places in my body with names that I will probably never be able to pronounce. My first instinct was that I was going to read a book about a man who made extraordinary discoveries about the human body and how it operates but it turns out that it was only about a man with extraordinary talent for Anatomy and he and his best friend was able too write a book with very liable information. Gray's Anatomy became one of the most popular books for students and the logic in it is still undeniable today.
lauriebrown54 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
¿The Anatomist¿ is an unusual combination of biography, history, memoir and anatomy. Hayes wonders one day who the Grey of ¿Grey¿s Anatomy¿ was and how he came to write the volume that has been a standard text for over a century. He finds little about Grey- none of his personal papers or effects survives- but he does find that Grey had a partner- the illustrator of the book. I¿d always assumed that Grey had illustrated his book- frankly, I¿d never given it a thought. His illustrator turns out to have been another physician, Henry V. Carter. Carter, son of an artist, was trained in drawing before he turned to doctoring. Carter and Grey shared a passion for dissection and anatomy, and were good friends before it ever occurred to Grey to create a new text. A dedicated diarist, Carter has left us a good record of his time with Grey and his anatomy classes, allowing Hayes to fill in a lot of the blanks as to the creation of the text. In between his discoveries about Carter and Grey, Hayes tells us about the anatomy classes he took. He is allowed to participate in three anatomy classes for medical students and physical therapists in training, including doing dissection. This allows him to get some idea of what Grey and Carter went through to get their educations- although the carefully preserved cadavers of today are a far cry from the putrescent ones that anatomy students had to deal with in Victorian times. Hayes comes away with a new appreciation for the human body and how it all works. Hayes made no stunning new discoveries, but the path his detective work took him on was interesting. It¿s not a great book, but it¿s a good one. I actually found myself more interested in the author¿s work in the anatomy lab than in the story he¿d started out to tell; he is able to give detailed descriptions of the process of dissection without being gross.
Shnooks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I thought I would really enjoy this but was disappointed. Instead of reading about Henry Gray you read mostly about the man who illustrated Gray's Anatomy.
maggiereads on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Thank goodness the writers¿ strike is over. Now, I can look forward to a new episode in popular drama, "Grey¿s Anatomy." I so miss my McDreamy and McSteamy.To pass the time during reruns, I picked up "The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray¿s Anatomy" by Bill Hayes.For those unfamiliar with "Gray¿s Anatomy," it is the quintessential reference book for medical students. In its 20th printing, this tome sits alongside other upper-echelon classic references such as "Webster¿s Dictionary" and "Bulfinch¿s Mythology." First printed in 1858, this year marks 150 years as a viable medical textbook.Author Hayes feels his whole life has led him to writing, ¿a book about a book about anatomy.¿ He cites two childhood favorite activities. First, his two best friends had doctor fathers who kept their medical books on the top most shelves in their respective studies. The boys would sneak in and pull down favorites then hide under desks mulling over the medical deformities for hours.The second activity gave Hayes a great power over his sisters. In his 1965 "World Book Encyclopedia," under H for Human Body, there were transparencies which included systems such as the skeletal, muscular, digestive, etc. Hayes took great pleasure in taunting his unsuspecting sisters with "Encyclopedia Man."While searching the book for a medical spelling Hayes thought, "Who wrote this thing?" The title page gave little more than Henry Gray, F.R.S. or Fellow of Royal College of Surgeons. Further digging at his local library left him discouraged. ¿Fascinating `biographies¿ have been written about everything from the number zero to the color mauve, yet there is not one on Gray.¿In Hayes¿ research, he discovers Gray¿s rise at St. George¿s Hospital in London through title changes; ¿postmortem examiner (1854), curator of the Anatomical Museum (1852), lecturer in anatomy (1854), and so forth.¿ It is only through Gray¿s illustrator Henry Vandyke Carter (an extensive diarist) that Hayes begins to unravel Gray¿s personality.In The Anatomist, Hayes alternates between Carter¿s diaries and his own experiences in modern-day anatomy class. I¿m not sure what is more interesting, the intimate thoughts of a Victorian medical student or Hayes¿ voice as he dissects the human body.Readers of this book will find themselves counting ribs, poking sternums, and trying to finger their mental foramen during the anatomy class sections, all without the unpleasant funk of formaldehyde.
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jhmJM More than 1 year ago
An interesting story by a talented writer. It doesn't get any better than that.
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