Science Book a Day Interviews Bill Hayes


Special thanks to Bill Hayes for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy

The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in nonfiction, Bill Hayes is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and the author of three books: Sleep Demons: An Insomniac’s Memoir; Five Quarts: A Personal and Natural History of Blood; and The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy. A photographer as well as a writer, he is currently at work on two new books:  “Sweat: A History of Exercise” and “Insomniac City,” a collection of his essays about life in New York, to be accompanied by a selection of his photographs. – From Bill’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for The Anatomist?

Like all of my books, The Anatomist began with a very simple question:

I’d had an old copy of Gray’s Anatomy for many years; for the most part, it sat on my bookshelf unused except as an occasional reference source–the anatomy equivalent to Webster’s Dictionary. One day about ten years ago, while reviewing galley proofs for my second book, Five Quarts (a history of human blood), I pulled it out to fact check the spelling of a certain artery. Just as I was putting the book back up on to the shelf, I pulled it out again for some reason. I can still picture this moment. I looked at the cover and thought, “I wonder who wrote this thing?” I looked on the jacket flap and found nothing but the author’s name, Henry Gray. I consulted some reference sources–again, nothing. I checked the public library’s online card catalog, thinking, Surely there must be a biography of Henry Gray. But there wasn’t one. That’s when the idea hit me to tell the story behind the creation of the original Gray’s Anatomy.

#2 – Gray’s Anatomy is arguably one of the most popular science books in science history. Why do we know so little about Henry Gray, its co-creator?

It’s surprising, isn’t it, since the book has never gone out of print in more than 150 years. There are several reasons: First, Gray died just three years after the book was published in 1857, suddenly and unexpectedly, of smallpox. He was a young man in his thirties, really just at the beginning of his career. He had been treating a young nephew who’d come down with the disease. The nephew survived but, Henry Gray, who’d actually been vaccinated against smallpox, succumbed to the illness and died within a week. Other writers have attempted to write a biography of Gray over the years, but astonishingly little biographical material was left behind–no letters, diaries, manuscript drafts, notes, and so on. My strong suspicion is that all of his personal effects, papers, books–anything he might have touched–were burned, destroyed, after his death, which is how public health authorities at the time dealt with a disease as terrible and contagious as smallpox. Facing this same dilemma, I had to find to other ways to tell Henry Gray’s story.

#3 – The life of Henry Carter was quite different. How were they similar and different? What allowed them to work so well together on Gray’s Anatomy?

Yes. Henry Gray wrote the book, but a young man named Henry Vandyke Carter did all of the anatomical drawings for which the book remains justly famous. Carter, four years younger, was a fellow anatomist and surgeon in London, and he had been Gray’s student in anatomy classes at St. George’s Medical School (which Gray had attended as well).

One of the most thrilling aspects of writing The Anatomist was discovering a trove of Henry Carter’s diaries, letters, and papers at an archive in London, which I then used to piece together the story behind the making of Gray’s Anatomy. These papers — Carter’s words — also gave me a glimpse of the two men and their relationship. My impression was that Carter — although a skilled anatomist and surgeon himself — was much more the temperamental artist–emotional, somewhat tortured, indecisive, unsure of himself; whereas Gray, by contrast, was confident, highly self-disciplined, focused. It was Gray’s idea to write a new “textbook” on anatomy for medical students–this was at the dawn of modern surgery; anesthesia, in the form of chloroform, had just been developed–and he commissioned his younger friend to do the drawings. I think they complemented one another–their skills, their temperaments–and, evidence from Carter’s diaries and letters tell me, they respected one another and worked together well on the book. They had a shared mission, and having very recently been medical student themselves, the two had a good feeling for what kind of textbook would be most useful.

#4 – The story is part-history, part-memoir. What did your own experience with dissection teach you?

Yes, I spent a year attending gross anatomy classes alongside first-year medical students at UCSF Medical School. Originally, I was simply curious to know how Gray and Carter had performed the dissections for their book, and what is was like to work in an anatomy lab. I had simply planned to attend a few lectures and labs as background research for the book. But, by the end of the first class, I was hooked. I just kept coming back to the anatomy lab day after day, and eventually I blended in (even though I was 25 years older than all of the students). I was like an anatomy “Zelig.”

Though my skills and knowledge definitely evolved over the year, to the point where I actually started helping some medical students with their anatomy studies, and could perform full cadaver dissection myself, I never lost my sense of wonder: What are we going to dissect today? What are we going to see–to learn? Every class was a chance to study something new. For me, this was a tremendous privilege.

#5 – Are you working on any new books/projects you can tell us about?

Yes, I am working on two books. The first is a history of exercise, titled SWEAT, structured similarly to my other three books–a weave of cultural and medical history together with personal narrative. The main historical figure in SWEAT is a 16th-century Italian physician, Girolamo Mercuriale, who wrote the first comprehensive (and illustrated) book on exercise, De Arte Gymnastica, published in 1569. I retrace his life in the pages of the book.

I am also working on a collection of my essays about life in New York–many of these have been published in The New York Times over the past 6 years, since I moved to NYC. These will be published along with a selection of my photographs–street photos–some of which you can see on my website:

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