Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Henry Gray and his textbook of anatomy

The Gods of Anatomy must have loved Henry Gray, for like swift-footed Achilles he died young and achieved immortality among men. Using a pen, not a sword, he authored a massive textbook of anatomy, first published in 1858. Like its equally voluminous competitor produced by Daniel John Cunningham in 1902, his book has been viewed and remembered with varying degrees of distaste by generations of medical students expected to memorize the muscles of the tongue, the boundaries of the spheno-palatine fossa, and whether the lingual nerve crossed in front or behind the hyoglossus.1

Cunningham’s book may have been more popular in Australia, where professors were imported from Scotland at the time of the Great Depression, whereas American medical students had to spend their nights with the book of Henry Gray. This has nothing to do with Grey’s Anatomy, a television show about the “personal and professional lives” of doctors at an American hospital and their relationships with fellow health-care workers.

But what about Henry Gray himself, the purveyor of so much happiness to medical students? Born in 1827 in one of the better parts of London, he reportedly took the high road of learning anatomy by doing the dissections himself. This was rewarded by his election to the Royal Society in 1852, and by a prize for an essay on the eye (1848) and for one on the spleen worth three hundred guineas (1853).

Henry Gray held successive posts as demonstrator, lecturer, and museum curator at St. George’s Hospital before that venerable institution was moved to the suburbs and replaced by expensive condominiums at Hyde Park Corner, not far from the Duke of Wellington’s Apsley House. He did indeed have a short life, dying in 1861 of confluent smallpox at age thirty-four, just as he was up for the post of assistant surgeon at the hospital. His book is currently in its forty-first edition.


  1. Dennis Gill. Doctors like eponymity. Hektoen International 3:1 (Winter 2011, History Essays).

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Summer 2019



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