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The Knife Man: Blood, Body-Snatching and the Birth of Modern Surgery

3.99  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,182 Ratings  ·  241 Reviews

Revered and feared in equal measure, John Hunter was the most famous surgeon of eighteenth-century London. Rich or poor, aristocrat or human freak, suffering Georgians knew that Hunter's skills might well save their lives but if he failed, their corpses could end up on his dissecting table, their bones and organs desti
Paperback, 656 pages
Published April 3rd 2006 by Bantam (first published 2005)
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Apr 09, 2012 Wealhtheow rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: someone who wants to read about a real-world Stephen Maturin
John Hunter rose from a poor Scottish farming family to become one of the leading men of science and medicine. His courage (he inserted a knife's point covered in pus into his urethra to see if syphilis and gonorrhea were the same disease! omg!), his lack of hypocrisy (in an age when even surgeons, who relied on dissections, refused to let their bodies be disturbed, he actually requested an autopsy), and his clear-sighted reliance on evidence instead of assumptions and tradition helped him trans ...more
Jan 25, 2013 Christie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, science
An excellent combination of a compelling narrative of a most influential scientist with the evolution of the practice of surgery and medical science. Ms. Moore has artfully told the store of John Hunter and his rise from the son of a Scottish farmer to a pioneer in medical and anthropological studies. While there are many extremely graphic scenes conveyed to the reader, they are necessary to gain the appreciation of how barbaric some of the acceptable practices in medicine were at the time. This ...more
Jun 16, 2008 Ashley rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This guy has the coolest nickname ever. Therefore you should read this book.

Ok, ok. So basically John Hunter is a total stud. He nonchalantly invented or paved the way for some very necessary surgeries, was one of the first to realize, "Hey, maybe we should really have these medical students study human anatomy in detail before we allow them to cut people open," AND he actually did research and used trail and errors with his patients instead of just relying on the prevailing folk remedies and "
If you are at all interested in biology, surgery, the Enlightenment, and aren't particularly squeamish, do yourself a favor and read this one. John Hunter, who plied his surgical trade in what we now think back on as the dark ages of medicine, revolutionized his field (and the natural sciences in general) by emphasizing observation, experimentation, and the application of scientific evidence. Common sense as this sounds, gathering evidence and acting on it was not what was expected of physicians ...more
This is a very fine biography of John Hunter, the fascinating 18th century surgeon who applied scientific methods - reason, observation and experimentation - to the field of surgery, at a time when his contemporaries were still studying the theories of the ancient Greeks and surgical techniques had changed little since medieval times.

During the course of his medical career Hunter would dissect thousands of human cadavers, stolen from London’s graveyards because there was no legitimate way to obt
Marguerite Kaye
Jan 31, 2016 Marguerite Kaye rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Where to start with John Hunter? To call him a polymath doesn't do him justice. A pioneer anatomist, a surgeon who believed in the power of observation and physical examinations in an era when most physicians thought anything 'hands on' was vulgar, and a man who probably saved more lives by refusing to operate in an era that didn't understand the basics of hygiene. Among many other things, he pre-empted Darwin, was a founder member of the Coleege of Veterinary Surgeons. pioneered more operations ...more
Dec 08, 2014 Jenny rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Another great nonfiction book, recommended to me by Goodreads. I thoroughly enjoyed the subject matter of the book. John Hunter was a fascinating man with an interesting history and interesting views. Moore describes his life as if writing a novel about a unique protagonist. Her writing is descriptive and engaging. She drew me in from the very first words: "The patient faced an agonizing choice." I especially liked the clever chapter titles, all named after the body part of a human or animal tre ...more
Jun 17, 2011 Paul rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When I was 19, I had an appendectomy. My mom, when she found out, was a bit scared (aside from the fact that it was surgery) due to the fact that a family member of hers, who had the same operation done on them years before, died from complications resulting from the procedure.

If it wasn't for John Hunter, with his emphasis on a scientific approach to surgery, where one assesses their mistakes and errors and then tries to find a way to change or correct them, then I probably would not have benef
Jun 22, 2010 Spencer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, history
This was a fascinating book about John Hunter, an anatomist, naturalist, surgeon, scientist, archivist, and innovator, who lived in England in the mid to late 1700s. In an era when bloodletting was the medical cure for most sicknesses, Hunter's fascination with biology/medicine and his incredible work ethic, drive, and insatiable curiosity drove him to make a remarkable number of discoveries, advances, and improvements in understanding anatomy, physiology, pathology etc. Along the way, he amasse ...more
Jul 11, 2008 Richard rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: so-glad-i-read
Wendy Moore's history of John Hunter, the almost cult figure who was, quite simply, a full advocate of the scientific method and thus not only the grandfather of modern surgical techniques but also an early proponent of evolution, almost a hundred years before Darwin, is a fascinating and enlightening read.

I picked up this book because I have an almost obsessive fixation with the ways of ancient medicine--bloodletting and such. Moore's book fully explores the techniques of the time that John Hu
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, cap ...more
Jan 02, 2011 Helen rated it it was amazing
The world clearly needs people like John Hunter, people who push boundaries and go that much further in the pursuit of knowledge. Reading this made me so grateful for the advances of modern surgery and dentistry. And now I have an urge to read medical and natural history journals, and expand my mind!
Dec 22, 2014 Aurelien rated it it was amazing
What a character! I truly enjoyed discovering the biography of such a man as, his accomplishments and insights into so many medical fields are absolutely amazing. I still can't believe one man alone could be such an astounding forerunner -from anatomy to surgery, dentistry and else!

What's more, John Hunter's curiosity, bizarre interests and incredible ability to think outside the box led him, not only to blaze paths in many medical fields but, also, to foresee evolution as a Darwin would later d
Ann Stone
Feb 19, 2012 Ann Stone rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I thoroughly enjoyed this historical account of comparative anatomy and physiology in its infancy. John Hunter was a true medical scientist and researcher. He was an extraordinary surgeon -- always changing his technique to follow the situation and incorporate his observations from past experience. As obvious as this may seem in this day and age, it seems that the physician's duty in Georgian England to follow the status quo. Hunter didn't ever conform to that way of life and we are far richer f ...more
May 18, 2011 Lara rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science-ish
Purely from the standpoint of a girl reading a book, this one was highly absorptive, thoughtfully composed, and sprang to life with rich, vivid emotions and a whole lot of visceral pain. From a historical and scientific standpoint, Moore’s telling of the life of John Hunter picks apart the multifarious and terrifying aspects of 18th century medical knowledge and surgical practice, strand by strand, like a tortured muscle. No matter how you vivisect it, this book is a compelling achievement.

Mel Campbell
I found this book absolutely fascinating, and was boring people at parties with tidbits from it for months afterwards. John Hunter was best known as a surgeon and anatomist, but he also innovated in dentistry, zoology, and many other branches of scientific enquiry.

He was a marvellous polymath, doing everything from developing revolutionary surgical procedures to infecting himself with venereal diseases in order to experiment with cures. And he amassed an incredible private menagerie and museum
Audacia Ray
A fascinating and sometimes gorily-detailed biography of an eighteenth century surgeon, anatomist, and naturalist. I just loved this book - the science/knowledge stuff is interesting (especially if you're interested in being horrified by medical practices of the 18th century), the characters are lively, and the details are... well, very detailed. Wendy Moore really transports you into Hunter's anatomy rooms and takes you into the grisly depths of rotting corpses, meticulous anatomical preparatio ...more
Nov 29, 2010 Amyss rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a must read, for everyone with a brain. If you think this book will be dry, or boring, I assure you, nothing could be further from the truth. The book is a must read, and I mean that not in an Oprah book club style, "Oh girl, you must read this!*giggle giggle*" No. It is a must read because these are the things we do not but MUST know and ponder; to stop taking for granted our aspirins and penicillin and the very existence of something that can be described as "minor surgery". WE must wr ...more
Jun 10, 2014 Alger rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Stopped about 1/3rd of the way through because I was learning nothing, either about Georgian England, Medical History, or John Hunter.

There is no there there in this book which promises an "Extraordinary Life", and instead delivers tedious detail. So far as it goes this is a readable book, even engaging enough to drag me through 200 pp of unending description and no action.

Wendy Moore has done the seeming impossible and made grave robbing tiresome, albeit through exhaustion of the topic.
Jan 05, 2016 Haytham rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Well, I am at least underwhelmed. The life of John Hunter is a really peculiar one. He had changed the concept of surgical management and via his abnormal background and lack of normal medical background, at that point of time, he managed to get rid of the myths which ruled surgical practice in the 18th century. However, Wendy Moore managed, somehow, to put this amazing time line in a very boring manner. I've, with much difficulty, managed to finish like half of the book. I actually couldn't pus ...more
Mar 29, 2012 Denali rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An incredible book recommended to me by Marsha. It's a little history, a little science, a little adventure, all tied up in a meticulously researched, well written narrative. John Hunter was a fascinating person. Moore dodges a lot of the typical stumbling blocks I've seen in books of this nature. She balances detail heavy descriptions and archival research with a lively writing style. She manages to write a chronological story but still have strong defined themes. She sketches connections betwe ...more
Aug 16, 2013 bup rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
By the rules of non-fiction books, there must be a subtitle - and this one's a doozy: "Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery." Our protagonist is a likeable underdog, too - not formally trained, not much for book learning - but as pure an adherent of the scientific method as anybody. More-so than his physician contemporaries, in fact, who were still adjusting humours as the ancient Greek texts taught them.

The book is a nice mix of body snatching escapades, Mary-Shelley-worthy di
Absolutely and completely fascinating story about medical pioneer John Hunter. It seems to be that war and unscrupulousness were essential to the early innovators of the medical and dental practices of the eighteenth century, practices that still relied much on the ancient Greeks for their knowledge and methods.

Deadly experiments, body snatching at an alarming rate and some truly inventive individuals made this time in medical history fascinating and dangerous. And John Hunter was right in the
Nov 14, 2015 Jenn rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating. I really wish I had read this prior to my study abroad in London; so much I probably saw/visited and didn't have this tie-in!
Elizabeth Silverman
My dad recently recommended that I read this book and I'm so happy I took his advice. As a premed student awaiting entrance into medical school, this book gave me great insight into medicine's illicit (and very exciting) past and the prevailing scientific ideas in the 1700s.
Above all, Moore's work paints a picture of a complex man who was a pioneer in a number of fields. Namely, surgery, but Hunter was a learned naturalist, he helped establish the foundation for Darwin's evolutionary theory, he
May 04, 2014 Terry rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This first rate biography details the life and expansive thinking of John Hunter, father of modern surgery. He was also a naturalist, an expert anatomist, a scientist and researcher. Hunter was fascinated by all life, the relationship between forms of life and how everything living was connected. Living in the 18th century (1728 - 1793) he challenged the then centuries-long concept that "humors" determined disease states. Long before Darwin came on the scene, Hunter deduced that life forms evolv ...more
Jul 12, 2010 Jan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting look at the beginning of modern surgery -- which involved corpse stealing, dissection of not-quite-executed criminals and semi-scientific gentlemen cutting lots of people apart. It did drag in places, but was overall a fairly solidly written biography. (The blood and gore helped.)

I picked it up at the Huntarian Museum in London. I have to say, it is a nice accompaniment to a visit as the museum retains many of the specimens discussed in the book.

Jan 13, 2016 Shawn rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned, science, history
I have read a lot of science history over the years, even so I had never heard much (or almost anything) about John Hunter. In short, Hunter is the man who brought the scientific method to surgery. What amazed me was how little I had heard about this man as the stories in the book mounted and his life intersected those of luminaries of biology like Edward Jenner (who was one of Hunter's pupils). By the end of the book, the reason for his absence from histories was apparent.
As to the book itself,
Apr 05, 2014 Phillipa rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This was a very interesting read and I can only agree with my sister when she says she's grateful for all the advances of modern medicine but even more grateful that she wasn't one of the folks around in the mid-eighteenth century who needed medical assistance. I think for me what was so fascinating, since we're all so used to how medicine works these days and that all new medical advances should go thru a number of tests and trials before being let loose on the general public, is how differentl ...more
Mar 02, 2009 J rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I've had this book for 2 days and I'm sure I'll finish it this weekend as I'm already halfway through. It is AMAZING, this biography of John Hunter, Scotland's preeminent surgeon, anatomist and natural historian of the 1700s. I haven't found such fascinating material that is so beautifully researched and written about in a long time.
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Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name.

Wendy Moore worked as a journalist and freelance writer for more than 25 years. She has always been interested in history, and as a result, began researching the history of medicine.

The Knife Man is her first book.
More about Wendy Moore...

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“The lessons he learned were diligently applied to modify his methods, resulting in a continuous research loop,” 0 likes
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