Henry Gray

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Gray, Henry

(b. London[?], England, 1825/1827; d. London, 8/13 June 1861)

anatomy, physiology.

For a name as well-known as Gray’s, extremely little is known about the man. He was one of four children of a private messenger to George IV and William IV; the family apparently had no financial problems. Essentially nothing is recorded of his preparatory education. On 6 May 1845 Gray entered St. George’s Hospital as a perpetual student. He seems very early to have paid considerable attention to anatomical studies, and while still a medical student he won the Royal College of Surgeons’ Triennial Prize for an essay entitled “The Origin, Connexion, and Distribution of the Nerves of the Human Eye and Its Appendages, Illustrated by Comparative Dissections of the Eye in the Other Vertebrate Animals.” Part of this essay was incorporated into his later paper on the development of the retina.

Gray finished his medical studies and qualified as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1849, and in June of the following year he was appointed house surgeon at St. George’s Hospital for the customary twelve months.

Most of Gray’s professional career was oriented around St. George’s; in 1852 he was demonstrator of anatomy, and after 1853 he was lecturer in anatomy. He was also curator of the St. George’s Hospital Museum. In 1852, after publication of his two major papers in the Philosophical Transactions, Gray was elected fellow of the Royal Society. In addition he became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and was surgeon to St. James’ Infirmary.

Besides his Anatomy Gray published several writings, the earliest of which was “On the Development of the Retina and Optic Nerve, and of the Membranous Labyrinth and Auditory Nerve,” which incorporated some of the material in his prize essay. His observations were almost exclusively on the chick embryo. He clearly demonstrated that the retina develops from a protrusion of the brain, a point then still being debated. Gray also presented one of the earliest major accounts of the development of the layers of the retina. The labyrinth, he believed, develops in a mode analogous to that of the retina.

Gray’s other anatomical paper was “On the Development of the Ductless Glands in the Chick,” in which he dealt with the suprarenals, thyroids, and the spleen. On the basis of his observations Gray rejected much of the earlier writings on the embryological origin of each of these glands. From his work he considered it to be proved that these, with the thymus, should be classified in one group, the ductless glands—a classification by no means in general acceptance at that time, which has since developed into what are now known as the endocrine glands. He grouped these three glands on the basis of the similarity of their mode of origin, their structure in the first stages of development, and the manner in which their tissues develop throughout the fetal period. In both of these papers Gray showed a thorough familiarity with the pertinent literature and a high degree of competence in his microscopic observations.

With the support of a grant from the Royal Society, Gray continued his researches on the spleen. These studies culminated in a major treatise, The Structure and Use of the Spleen, which was awarded the Astley Cooper Prize in 1853 and was published in 1854. In a historical introduction Gray reviewed most of the previous writings on the spleen. His own observations included the origin of the spleen from the dorsal mesogastrium (often attributed to Johannes Müller) and early, if not initial, descriptions of the closed and open circulations, the lymphatics, and the nerves in the spleen. He also performed ligaturing and chemical experiments on the blood of the spleen.

The work for which Gray is justly most famous and which has become an institution in its own right is his Anatomy, Descriptive and Surgical (1858). The great success experienced by Gray’s Anatomy was not due to lack of competition; there were successful works by Jones Quain, W. J. E. Wilson, Xavier Bichat, J. G. Cloquet, and others in use and readily available in England. Gray was described by a contemporary as a “lucid teacher of anatomy,” a lucidity which carried over into his Anatomy not only in the logical arrangement of the material but also in the 363 new illustrations. The latter were done from drawings by Henry Vandyke Carter, who executed his drawings from fresh dissections that Gray and he performed. The arrangement of the material and the close relation between the text and the illustrations were Gray’s work and show his clear understanding of the fundamentals of his subject. The literary style apparently was greatly polished by the assistance of Timothy Holmes, who also was editor of the third (1863) through ninth (1880) editions of the Anatomy. A major innovation, which greatly aided the success of the book was the introduction of remarks on surgical anatomy into an English textbook of anatomy. The reviews of the Anatomy often commented on Gray’s ability to present, to students and practitioners alike, the practical information which they needed in an accessible form. This accessibility has been one of the great factors in the Anatomy’s success and has influenced other writers of anatomy textbooks.

Gray also wrote papers in pathology and is reputed to have made good progress on a major treatise on tumors at the time of his death. He died in June 1861 from smallpox contracted while tending a nephew.


I. Original Works. Gray’s two embryological papers are “On the Development of the Retina and Optic Nerve, and of the Membranous Labyrinth and Auditory Nerve,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 140 (1850), 189–200; and “On the Development of the Ductless Glands in the Chick,” ibid., 142 (1852), 295–309, His books are The Structure and Use of the Spleen (London, 1854) and Anatomy, Descriptive and Surgical (London, 1858; Philadelphia, 1859). All the American eds. were closely based upon, but were not reprints of, the English eds. Goss (see below) lists both the English and the American series of eds., with their respective editors, through 1959.

II. Secondary Literature. There is a brief obituary in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 12 (1862–1863), xi. Two closely related articles which are the basis of much that has been written since are “Henry Gray,” in St George’s Hospital Gazette, 16 (1908), 49–54; and F. K. Boland, “Henry Gray, Anatomist: An Appreciation” in American Journal of the Medical Sciences, 136 (1908), 429–435, see also F. N. L. Poynter, “Gray’s Anatomy, the First Hundred Years,” in British Medical Journal (1958), 2, 610–611; and Charles Mayo Goss, A Brief Account of Henry Gray F. R. S. and His Anatomy, Descriptive and Surgical During a Century of Its Publication in America (Philadelphia, 1959).

Wesley C. Williams

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Gray, Henry Henry Gray (1827–61) was a London surgeon, who, in 1858, published the first edition of a medical text book entitled Anatomy: descriptive and surgical. In later years — first informally, and, after 1938, formally — the book became known as Gray's Anatomy. It is one of the few medical texts known by name to the general public.

Henry Gray was born in Windsor Castle, but lived in Belgravia for most of his life. The family had moved to be closer to Buckingham Palace on the accession of William IV, to whom Gray's father, William, was Deputy Treasurer. Aged 18 Henry entered St George's Hospital at Hyde Park Corner in Central London, and he qualified as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1848, the same year in which he won one of the College's triennial essay prizes for an account of the nerves of the human eye. As a student he was known for his diligent attention, especially in anatomical studies, and in particular for performing numerous dissections himself. Gray remained at St George's in House Surgeon positions, and continued his anatomical work, publishing several of his anatomical observations in papers in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. In 1852 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. From that time on he devoted himself to anatomy, serving St George's as a demonstrator, later as Lecturer on Anatomy, and as Curator of the Museum.

The appearance of his book was timely. Medical education in Britain was being professionalized and formalized — in that same year, 1858, the Medical Act was passed in Britain, creating the General Medical Council (GMC), the regulatory and licensing authority of the medical profession. This epitomized the growing professional status of medicine in Britain, with regulated access and recognized training procedures and courses taking place in properly accredited institutions. Simultaneously, new scientific approaches to medicine were developing, which were being incorporated into the medical curricula. Gray's book was not the first anatomy textbook — especially since the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832 (which provided legitimate sources of bodies for dissection), guides and manuals had been produced for medical and surgical students. What distinguished Gray's book was the number and quality of illustrations, and his emphasis on anatomy as the practical basis of surgery. The premier medical journals of the time, The Lancet and The British Medical Journal, praised its style and content, and the latter's review prophesied that it would become the manual of anatomy. A year after its appearance in Britain, an American edition was produced, and a second edition was produced in London in 1860 — just before the death of its young author, at the age of 34, from smallpox contracted after nursing a nephew. Gray's loss to anatomy was mourned by many colleagues; one of them, Timothy Holmes, who was a fellow surgeon from St George's, continued to produce new editions of Gray's book up to 1880 (the 9th edition). He in turn was succeeded by another practising surgeon, T. Pickering Pick, and it was not until 1901 (the 15th edition) that a professional anatomist — one who earned his living by teaching and studying anatomy, rather than from surgery — was appointed as editor.

In 1995 the 38th edition appeared. Continuing the tradition of generous illustrations begun by its eponymous founder, Gray's Anatomy now provides a coherent account of the structure of the human body from the ultra-microscopical to the population level — and anatomy is now presented as a central discipline in the natural sciences, not merely of relevance to the practising surgeon.

E. M. Tansey

See also anatomy.