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Biographical entry Gray, Henry (1827 - 1861)

MRCS Feb 11th 1848; FRCS May 31st 1860; FRS 1852.

13 June 1861
Anatomist and General surgeon


Gray's father was Private Messenger to George IV and William IV; his sister and a brother died young, but a second brother, Thomas William Gray, left two daughters, one of whom supplied Clinton Dent (qv) with biographical details.

Gray entered at St George's Hospital as a perpetual student on May 6th, 1845. The hospital at that time partly held its medical school in rooms rented in Kinnerton Street. Here the teaching of anatomy, chemistry, physiology, etc, was carried on; the lectures on medicine, surgery, and the clinical part of the curriculum being given at the hospital. Lecturers on anatomy in former days were in the habit of describing the premises (75 Kinnerton Street, now the Animals' Hospital and Institute) as a diagrammatic representation, on a large scale, of the auditory canal and internal ear, the main door, which was at the end of a short passage, being compared to the tympanic membrane. Gray began to work at anatomy with much determination, probably under Henry Charles Johnson (qv), whose name is identified with the St George's Hospital Medical School Prize in Anatomy. He pursued his study so diligently that in 1848, at the age of about 21, he was awarded the Triennial Prize of the Royal College of Surgeons for an essay on "The Origin, Connection and Distribution of the Nerves of the Human Eye and its Appendages, illustrated by Comparative Dissections of the Eye in the other Vertebrate Animals". The prize, which has been awarded only twelve times since it was founded in 1822, has been associated with the John Hunter Medal since 1867.

All who remembered Henry Gray as a student agree in describing him as a most painstaking and methodical worker, and one who learned his anatomy by the slow but invaluable method of making dissections for himself.

In June, 1850, he was appointed House Surgeon, and held the post for the usual twelve months under Robert Keate, Cesar Hawkins, Edward Cutler, and Thomas Tatum, doing the work under two surgeons for six months and under the other two for the remaining six months. On June 3rd, 1852, he was elected FRS, a rare distinction to be conferred on a man of twenty-five. Having now come to be regarded as a very rising man, he returned to the dissecting-room and devoted himself to the great work with which his name is identified - the Treatise on Human Anatomy. The first edition of the Anatomy, Descriptive and Surgical, was published by Parker & Son in 1858. In the preface, dated Aug 1st, 1858, the author "gratefully acknowledges the great services he has derived in the execution of his work from the assistance of his friend, Dr H V Carter, late Demonstrator of Anatomy to St George's Hospital. All the drawings from which the engravings were made were executed by him. In the majority of cases they have been copied from or corrected by recent dissections made jointly by the author and Dr. Carter." Gray also thanks Timothy Holmes (qv) for his able assistance in correcting the proof-sheets. Holmes, a polished scholar, probably improved the style in which the book was written, for Gray's own literary manner appears to have been very crude. Still, Holmes's help only amounted to the polishing of a rather rough-hewn block, and does not detract at all from the scientific value of Gray's work as an anatomist, or from the skill shown in the arrangement of the subject. The book, known as "Gray's Anatomy" to many generations of students, reached the 23rd edition in 1928. Timothy Holmes and Pickering Pick (qv), both friends of Gray, have been among its chief editors, and its illustrations have been largely drawn from specimens in the College Museum. Dr Vandyke Carter, the draughtsman, was a student in human and comparative anatomy in the College Museum in 1853.

The book on its first appearance was praised by the Lancet, but accused by the Medical Times (1859, I, 241), in a scarifying article, of being largely a plagiarism from Quain and Sharpey's Anatomy, the text-book of the period. This charge Clinton Dent has sufficiently refuted:-

"Undeniably many passages in Gray's work could be cited in which the phraseology and description closely resemble that of Quain and Sharpey's 'Anatomy'; but it is somewhat absurd in ordinary anatomical descriptions to accuse one writer of paraphrasing passages to be found in the work of another…. Forgetfulness of the source from which we are borrowing is an extremely common form of originality."

In 1861 Caesar Hawkins and Edward Cutler, Surgeons, were succeeded by the Assistant Surgeons of St George's Hospital, and Gray became a candidate for the post of Assistant Surgeon, the other candidates being Timothy Holmes and Athol Johnson. Gray's election was regarded as certain, when he contracted small-pox while looking after a nephew ill of that disease, and died of its confluent variety after a very short illness. Athol Johnson retired from the contest; Holmes and Henry Lee (qv) were elected. Gray, at the time of his premature death, was engaged to be married. His career had shown the highest promise and he was deeply mourned by his friends. Sir Benjamin Brodie, then growing blind, took up his pen almost for the last time to say to Charles Hawkins - "I am most grieved about poor Gray. His death, just as he was on the point of realizing the reward of his labours, is a sad event indeed…. Gray is a great loss to the Hospital and the School. Who is there to take his place?" He died on Thursday morning, June 13th, 1861, whether at his residence, at 8 Wilton Street, Grosvenor Place, or not is uncertain. Among other positions held by him at the time of his death were the Surgeoncies to the St George's and the St James's Dispensaries.

It is idle to speculate whether Henry Gray would have distinguished himself as a surgeon to the same extent as he did as an anatomist, but he had already done sound work in pathology, and, indeed, at the time of his death he had made good progress with a work on "Tumours", the manuscript of which is lost.

Apart from the Anatomy Gray's writings comprise:
"On the Structure and Use of the Spleen," which gained the Astley Cooper Prize of £300 in 1853. He was assisted in the important preliminary research for this essay by funds from the Royal Society, made out of the annual Parliamentary grant.
Numerous papers on anatomy and surgery, viz, two in the Med-Chir Trans and others in the Pathol Trans and Phil Trans, notably "On the Development of the Optic and Auditory Nerves" (Phil Trans, 1850, cxl, 189), and "On the Development of the Ductless Glands of the Chick" (Ibid, 1852, cxlii, 295).

Sources used to compile this entry: [Clinton Dent's short biography in the St George's Hosp Gaz, 1908, xvi, 49, with a mezzotint portrait and a facsimile of Sir Benjamin Brodie's letter to Charles Hawkins. The facsimile is missing in the copy of the Gazette in the library of the Royal Society of Medicine, but both are present in the copy preserved in the Royal College of Surgeons of England. The biography and the portrait are reproduced in the 23rd edition of the Anatomy, edited by Professor Robert Howden and published in 1926].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England