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Exhibition hopes to give Gray’s Anatomy artist his proper due

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39526.647176.DB (Published 27 March 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:688
  1. Wendy Moore
  1. 1London

    When two friends, both young surgeons at St George’s Hospital, London, joined forces in 1855 to create a practical and affordable anatomy textbook for students they could have had little idea of the eventual success of their project. Celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, with its 40th edition about to roll off the press, Gray’s Anatomy has become the world’s longest running and probably best known anatomical work.

    Yet, although the book’s author, Henry Gray, has become a household name, its illustrator, Henry Vandyke Carter, has rarely been honoured.

    Attempting to redress the balance, the Royal College of Surgeons of England is staging an exhibition at its headquarters in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, from 3 April to 2 May, which tells the story of the origins of Gray’s Anatomy with rare materials from its history. The display will include two first editions of the book as well as first proofs of the wood block engravings made from Carter’s exquisite drawings.

    Gray, a well off and well connected surgeon and anatomist, worked shoulder to shoulder with Carter, his shy and retiring colleague, performing the dissections required for their book. While Gray wrote the clear and straightforward text, Carter provided the detailed illustrations.

    When finally published in 1858, as Anatomy, Descriptive and Surgical, the work was immediately acclaimed for its simple, well organised layout and clarity. Uniquely, as in the illustration of the arteries of the neck from the proofs of the first edition (pictured), labels were integral to the drawings rather than in a separate key. Yet Gray attempted to sideline Carter’s contribution, which has been overlooked ever since.

    The author Ruth Richardson, whose book on the history of Gray’s Anatomy is to be published in September, hopes that the exhibition will help put Carter’s name on the map. “Carter has never had his proper due and that seems quite inexplicable to me,” she said. “When you look at the first edition it is not the text that is original. The originality of the volume resided in the illustrations.”

    The exhibition is being launched with a lecture by Dr Richardson on the story of Gray’s Anatomy and the two surgeons who created it, at 7 pm on 3 April. The college is offering 30 tickets to the lecture free to readers of the BMJ on a first come basis. To reserve tickets, email museums@rcseng.ac.uk quoting “BMJ reader offer” with your name, address, and the number of tickets you need (maximum two per person).

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