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Bill Hayes Delivers Annual Friends of the Rare Book Room Lecture on “Writing the Body”

Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator and Reference Librarian for Historical Collections at NYAM, with Bill Hayes

NYAM was pleased to welcome acclaimed writer Bill Hayes to deliver the 2014 Friends of the Rare Book Room Lecture on April 23, 2014. Hayes, a New York Times columnist and the author of three books including The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy, shared his research process for his upcoming book Sweat: A History of Exercise and discussed the varying approaches he has taken in writing about the human body, including the use of NYAM’s rare book and historical collections.

“It’s always rewarding to see the outcome of research in NYAM’s collections and welcome back researchers to reflect on their process and how their findings have inspired and shaped their work,” said Lisa O’Sullivan, Director of NYAM’s Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health.

In his talk, entitled “Writing the Body,” Hayes shared that he had a keen interest in medicine and anatomy from an early age, but was ultimately drawn to writing rather than to the medical professions. Each of his books was inspired by a question that came to him suddenly; for Sweat, that question came to him during a workout: “How did we all end up here, in gyms?” To when and where, he wondered, would this inquiry trace back in history? Two years later, these questions remained in his head as he visited NYAM’s Rare Book Room to do research.

Reading a passage from Sweat, Hayes revealed the impact of his visit to NYAM to his writing process. He came to the rare book room with a list of ten requested texts on the history of exercise. Having reviewed his choices, Ms. Shaner added an extra volume to the texts she supplied, a choice that ended up directing the entire course of his research for the book. That volume was a rare first edition of De arte Gymnastica (The Art of Gymnastics) by 16th-century physician Girolamo Mercuriale.

Hayes was immediately drawn in by the book’s thorough coverage of different sports and forms of physical activity. The text is in Latin, and it wasn’t until later that he obtained a translation, but the images alone were enough to inspire a research process that would take him around the world to study the entire life of Mercuriale and the history of exercise. He supplemented this work by personally immersing himself in the topic and trying different types of exercise—the same approach that led him to spend a year studying anatomy alongside medical students for his previous book The Anatomist.

“Mercuriale was one of the most well-known and respected physicians of his time, but is basically unknown now,” Hayes said. Regardless, “All roads lead back to him when it comes to exercise.”

“While I had not met Bill before he came to use the rare book collections at NYAM, I already knew his work,” said Arlene Shaner, NYAM’s Acting Curator and Reference Librarian for Historical Collections. “One of the things that most impressed me is the way in which his writing makes his subjects matter to us, his audience, both as engaging topics of historical investigation and in a deeply personal way. Whether writing about the history of sleep, blood, or the tangled relationship between Henry Gray and Henry Carter during the creation of Gray’s Anatomy, Bill draws us in by interweaving stories of his own experience with the historical narrative. It has been a pleasure to see that process unfold here as he has been doing the research for his current project on the history of exercise.”

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Posted on April 28, 2014

Gina Ravosa
Director of Marketing & Communications
The New York Academy of Medicine
1216 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10029
(212) 822-7285


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