The Knife Man:
Blood, Body-Snatching and
the Birth of Modern Surgery
by Wendy Moore
"The improvement of medical practice which will become more efficacious with the progress of reason and of the social order, will mean the end of infectious and hereditary diseases and illnesses brought on by climate, food. or working conditions. It is reasonable to hope that all other diseases may likewise disappear as their distant causes are discovered." - Marquis de Condorcet
The Eighteenth Century ushered in what would become known as the "Enlightenment". A new philosophy of progress was proclaimed by intellectuals throughout Europe. They proclaimed that Reason would create a better future; science and technology, as Francis Bacon had taught, would enhance man's control over nature, and cultural progress, prosperity and the conquest of disease would follow. While Condorcet's vision is still not complete, Wendy Moore's biography of Dr. John Hunter, The Knife Man, captures one man's contribution to it.
Moore depicts Hunter's life and arrests the reader's attention through the use of intriguing episodes in that life. Told in a chronological style, Hunter's life was filled with exciting episodes as he was what one might call a "larger than life" character. Always unafraid to upset friend and foe alike, he never rested in his search for the truth about human and other animals' physiology. He became a premiere surgeon despite his distaste for "book learning" through his own observations and what we call the scientific method of experimentation and verification. He impressed me as an enlightenment version of Aristotle in his method of theorizing based on observation of the real world. He was among the first to do autopsies on dead people, he developed methods for revival of life through electric shock (Benjamin Franklin was among his friends), and he used artificial insemination to help a woman conceive. He would work for free with poor people while buying their dead bodies from the graveyard later. He was obsessed with immortality and whether it was possible to obtain it.
A fellow Scot whose heritage I share, John Hunter created modern medicine and surgery as we know it, as well as being the inspiration for the next generation of artists (Joshua Reynolds), composers (Haydn), writers (Tobias Smollett, Samuel Johnson, Lord Byron among others) and of course doctors (Lister and Jenner in particular); indeed Hunter would be credited with being the inspiration for Dr Doolittle and his house would inspire Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (another of those ubiquitous Scots). More importantly, from my perspective and interest in philosophy and economics, was his friendship with David Hume and Adam Smith, the latter for whom he provided medical attention in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to turn around his declining health in the 1780s. Hunter would later found the Royal College of Surgeons as well as the Royal Veterinary College. His museum of body parts and skeletons exists to this very day. He also was named Surgeon-Extraordinary to King George III and Surgeon-General of the British Army.
Just as in our day, in earlier times the independent-minded forward thinker was not rewarded for his views by the establishment. And just as the men who discovered the earth was not the center of the universe were chastised by the church, so Hunter was criticized by the medical establishment of his day. With his colleagues still practising medicine and surgery from the Dark Ages, Hunter would be cutting up dead bodies and examining the anatomy of bodies to discover how they worked. He would do the same with animals from dogs to elephants to zebras. He would then give lectures to an army of adoring medical students while his scheming brother would steal the body parts for his own private collection. I was impressed with the large numbers of young physicians who attended Hunter's lectures and demonstrations, for they would create the medicine of the future. Wendy Moore successfully relates the life of this giant of the enlightenment who changed the course of medicine for the better.
Update of a review from 2010