Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Anatomist (copy)

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 the Royal Society (of London). 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.