Gray's Anatomy, written by ambitious young British surgeon Henry Gray and illustrated by anatomist/draftsman H.V. Carter, is a classic of Western medicine. Anticipating the 150th anniversary of its publication, San Francisco author Bill Hayes embarked on a study of the famous book and its creators. Having written about human biology before — in his books Sleep Demons: An Insomniac's Memoir and Five Quarts: A Personal and Natural History of Blood — Hayes began taking anatomy classes. "I was curious," he muses now. Nonetheless, "I never imagined that I'd ... end up performing full-cadaver dissections. I simply planned to attend a few lectures." But after the first, "I was hooked. I just kept coming back to the anatomy lab day after day and I blended in — I was like an anatomy Zelig," he jokes, alluding to Woody Allen's 1983 film about a human chameleon.
Hayes' new book The Anatomist is a sensitive and vivid history of Gray, Carter, and his own journey into the world of scrubs and formaldehyde. He will discuss it at Black Oak Books (1491 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 22. Probing all those dead bodies gave him a keen appreciation for live ones: "Even in a dead body, a joint is a thing of beauty. They remain well-preserved and they actually still work — you can manipulate the limbs to see exactly how a simple ball-and-socket joint, like that at the hip, works. ... And after you see something like that, you see your own body differently. ... After studying anatomy, something as simple as taking a pee is never the same." Although he reasons that simply having a body predisposes one to being curious about it, Hayes admits being driven by deeper impulses. "Being raised a strict Catholic and absorbing all the weird iconography of the Church and taboos about the body" was one key factor. "But, honestly, I would have to say that AIDS probably had the biggest impact. I moved to San Francisco at the height of the epidemic, in 1985. I'd just come out, and seeing these beautiful young men, men my own age, fall ill to this mysterious disease and deteriorate so rapidly, die — the body became something to fear." BlackOakBooks.com
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