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

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In an era when bloodletting was considered a cure for everything from colds to smallpox, surgeon John Hunter was a medical innovator, an eccentric, and the person to whom anyone who has ever had surgery probably owes his or her life. In this sensational and macabre story, we meet the surgeon who counted not only luminaries Benjamin Franklin, Lord Byron, Adam Smith, and Thomas Gainsborough among his patients but also “resurrection men” among his close acquaintances. A captivating portrait of his ruthless devotion to uncovering the secrets of the human body, and the extraordinary lengths to which he went to do so—including body snatching, performing pioneering medical experiments, and infecting himself with venereal disease—this rich historical narrative at last acknowledges this fascinating man and the debt we owe him today.

342 pages, Paperback

First published April 10, 2005

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About the author

Wendy Moore

12 books130 followers
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.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 384 reviews
Profile Image for John Blumenthal.
Author 10 books98 followers
October 27, 2020
Terrible title that makes it sound like a bio of Jack the Ripper’s cutlery-obsessed sidekick but an utterly fascinating story about a virtually unknown 18th century surgeon named John Hunter, who was arguably one of the most innovative medical researchers in history. Yes, he paid criminals to dig up graves and steal cadavers for him, but as a result of his work on dead bodies, he knew more about the human body than any man alive and used his knowledge to cure people at a time when bloodletting was considered the treatment of choice for just about everything. One example—as a military surgeon, he perceived that his colleagues would reflexively operate on every soldier with a bullet wound even if amputation was required. More often than not, infections would set in and cause death. Hunter realized that surgery was not always necessary—many of the wounded could live normal lives with bullet wounds. He was right and as a result, he cut (pun not intended) the mortality rate in half.

Some of his surgical techniques were dismissed as heresy, but later adopted in the 1950s; he performed the first in vitro fertilization—in the late 1700s! But what astounded me the most was the fact that virtually nobody, except perhaps for some in the medical profession, has ever heard of him.
Profile Image for K..
3,544 reviews999 followers
August 3, 2017
Trigger warnings: lots and lots of medical stuff and anatomy and dissection and weird experiments on animals that end in them dying.

So this is a biography of John Hunter, eighteenth century surgeon. It tells the story of his life through cases that he worked, experiments he performed, and discoveries he made that revolutionised medicine forever. In an era when most doctors still relied on bleeding and purging as their core treatments, Hunter - despite being a surgeon, not a doctor - was all "Yeah, I'mma fix the ACTUAL cause" or "Leave it alone, it'll sort itself out" as required.

He was clearly a brilliant mind, albeit a little cracked out. Like...homeboy gave himself syphilis so that he could track the progress of syphilis and report on it medically???? W.H.U.T. He also relied heavily on body snatchers, provided medical care to some of the most important people in the country, was pretty unscrupulous at times, and amassed an incredible collection of anatomical and natural history objects.

Anyway. This was occasionally horrifying but largely fascinating. It's definitely not one for the faint of heart, but if you're at all interested in medical history, give it a go!
Profile Image for India M. Clamp.
203 reviews
October 21, 2018
Year is 1785 and one of the first patients to see Mr. Hunter had a tumor the size of a bowling ball on the side of his head. Fortunately, it was benign. The tumor was so large no other surgeon would operate except John Hunter. Thus 25 minutes later patient Burley left with a little scar sans 9 lb. useless appendage that Hunter had expertly evacuated.

Surgeon John Hunter was the youngest of ten children. Hunter used the scientific method in his practices and thus demonstrated the interconnectedness of all life. Many accolades including his marriage to a poet, patient King George III and the Copley medal win.

John Hunter was "driven by tireless curiosity and a compulsion to improve the surgery he had witnessed in hospitals.” He came to be admired by patients and medical students....”
---Wendy Moore

In the 1700’s the medical community had no idea of germs and hand washing (pre/post-surgery). Surgical instruments were encrusted with pus and remnants from the previous surgery. Blood loss and infection was the causality for death. Surgery in the late 1700’s was for the brave and was not illuminated as we find most surgical theatres now. Book is not for the prudish. Superb! Buy, learn and discuss.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,095 reviews1,132 followers
February 4, 2020
A very engaging biography of a fascinating figure: despite being largely self-educated, John Hunter was an intellectual giant who pioneered experimental surgery and applied the scientific method to medicine in a time when most doctors put more stock in ancient texts than verifiable observations. Hunter extensively studied the anatomy of humans and animals through thousands of dissections, and even seems to have been moving toward his own theory of evolution, though his writings on the subject were not published during his lifetime (1728-1793).

By modern standards Hunter seems both enlightened (advocating restraint in surgery, and letting the body heal itself instead if it could; battlefield surgery in particular was so primitive it often made conditions worse) and cruel (animal vivisection, and seeking out unusual bodies of people who definitely did not want to be dissected – which, unfortunately for medicine at the time, was almost everyone). By the standards of his own time, too, he was polarizing: wildly popular among the hundreds of students whose educations he made a priority, but hated by many of his colleagues for being brusque and dismissive.

All-around, Hunter was a colorful figure with an interesting life, and he's given very sympathetic treatment here. I do wonder, as sometimes happens in biographies, if the author overstates the importance of her subject to history, or the prescience of some of his speculations. But her facts seem very well supported, in which case Hunter's contributions have been sadly under-discussed. Overall I found this book very readable, engaging and informative, and it paints a vivid picture of the times.

A note for the squeamish: I am squeamish and was a little concerned to read this based on comments in a few reviews, but I actually didn’t find it that bad. Early on a couple of surgical procedures are described somewhat explicitly, but the book is much more about Hunter’s life than about surgical methods. Where his work is described I didn’t find it overly gory, but then I did go in expecting the worst.
Profile Image for Wealhtheow.
2,407 reviews535 followers
February 14, 2016
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 transform surgery and natural sciences. From a farm boy with an unfashionable accent he became the chosen surgeon of such luminaries as Lord Byron, Benjamin Franklin, and William Pitt the Younger. Unfortunately, he poured all his money into creating an incredible natural history museum, so upon his death his family was left destitute. Additionally, his brother-in-law stole his papers in order to steal his ideas and ensure that Home, not Hunter, got the glory of the discoveries.

Moore weaves together the zeitgeist and scientific theories of the time with the facts of Hunter's extraordinary life. His story is fascinating, and her writing is lucid and energetic.
October 20, 2017
A book that makes you grateful to experience medicine as it is TODAY!

3.5 Stars

I’m a huge fan of medical non-fiction and the history of medicine so naturally I gravitated toward this title. I will say this wasn’t my favorite that I’ve read on the subject and it’s a bit early of a timeframe for what I typically am fascinated by, I prefer mid-to-late 19th century medicine, but there were definitely a lot of fascinating details strewn throughout this book and…others that were of a rather disturbing nature like the distressing experiments and vivisections John Hunter performed on live animals all in the name of science.

John Hunter apparently had more dissection time than most surgeons of the time, mainly due to the measures he’d go to acquire bodies/animals for himself and for his students to have a “book” to learn from and explore. I mean, I completely understand that these measures boosted the medical field considerably and especially in the art of surgery.

The sample of the book was what drew me in and I was blown away by that first chapter, thinking, “what a treat if the entire book is written this way!”—well the rest of the book fell a little flat compared to all that the very first chapter had to offer! The rest of the story was written in choppy chapters and not tackling the feel of that first chapter transporting me right in the moment. The first chapter called “The Coach Driver’s Knee” talked about how in 1785 aneurysms behind the knee were often a death sentence but John Hunter entered the scene at just the right moment and felt confident with his knowledge of the anatomy of the region to be able to repair the injury. (I won’t go into too much detail in case you plan/decide to read the book).

I just mistakenly thought that each consecutive chapter was going to follow various surgeries/cases he performed/treated and what their outcomes were. But that was not exactly the case…I was just left wanting more of that.

But I guess what came after that first chapter was essentially explaining just how he came to be one of the most sought after surgeons due to his comprehension of anatomy and all the tangle of muscles, tendons, veins, lymph nodes, arteries, organs that lay just below the surface of our largest organ—the skin. “He believed that only by minutely studying the human body, in order to understand the whereabouts and functions of every living part, could surgeons possibly hope to improve their skills.” (pg 7) It is rather disheartening at how he arrived at this knowledge though—with the book going into great detail of how he made animals suffer to verify how things worked just beneath the skin, how organs functioned, how injuries healed, etc. I wish there was another way but I suppose I should be grateful for what these mavericks did for the modernization of surgery and medicine.

This book was riddled with fascinating tidbits like, for example:

“Far from being interlopers in the field of surgery, barbers were the first surgeons. The earliest organized medical care, in medieval times, had been centered on monasteries. But the church frowned on its devotees spilling blood, and so barbers—who were frequent visitors to brethren in order to keep tonsures and beards in trim—assisted the monks in their medical work by excising warts, removing abscesses, and letting blood. The familiar red-and-white-striped poles outside barbershops are leftover reminders of their erstwhile professions. Originally, they signified the bandaged and bloodied stick gripped by patients during minor surgical procedures.” (Pg 22)

And some beautiful descriptions that do help to transport you to that time and place, as in:

“As Hunter approached from the northeast, through the pleasant villages of Tottenham, Islington, and Pentonville, the rough, rutted road became increasingly busy, while houses, shops, and taverns wrestled for space along the way. As he neared the city, the narrow, towering tenements, which housed whole families in single cellars and attic rooms, almost blocked out the sky. Negotiating the congested streets, where stagecoaches and private carriages battled for passage with farm carts and livestock seemed hopelessly confusing; the sounds of horses’ hooves, creaking wheels, and complaining cattle were deafening. Mud, animal dung, refuse, and human waste splashed pedestrians as they walked the pavements and tried to dodge the swinging shop signs, speeding bearers of sedan chairs, and downpours of foul water from upper-story windows. By late afternoon oil lamps lighted the smoky streets and candles illuminated shop windows displaying silk clothing and exquisite jewelry, their luxury forming a pantomime backdrop to the squalor of ragged children begging in the gutters.” (Pg 24)

A few other excerpts:

“On the treacherous high seas, British adventurers were risking their lives to claim uncharted territories for king and country, beating off European rivals in the struggle for global domination. Success brought not only immediate fortune but lasting fame: The victors’ names would be forever commemorated in some remote mountain or coastal feature. The exploration of the human body was no different. Across Europe, anatomists vied to discover previously unmapped parts of the body, staking their claim to a piece of the human interior. Intrepid anatomists could be assured of immortality through the parts they described; if they did not themselves bestow their names on their discoveries, they could be certain their disciples would arrange that honor. So in the sixteenth century, the followers of Italian professor Gabriello Fallopio ensured his name would live forever after he described the tubes to the uterus. His compatriot and contemporary Bartolomeo Eustachio likewise had his name commemorated in the tube running between the nose and the ear. And in the following century, striking back for England, the anatomist Thomas Willis left his name to the Circle of Willis, the loops of arteries at the base of the brain. (Pg 64)

“Opening a huge sperm whale on a barge on the Thames, standing on top of its blubbery carcass as he had in 1759, he noted that “the tongue was almost like a feather-bed.” With awe, he added, “The heart and aorta of the spermaceti whale appeared prodigious, being too large to be contained in a wide tub, the aorta measuring a foot in diameter. When we consider this applied to the circulation and figure to ourselves that probably ten or fifteen gallons of blood are thrown out at one stroke, and moved with immense velocity through a tube of a foot diameter, the whole idea fills the mind with wonder. Hunter’s poetical descriptions of whales would later be cited as inspiration for Moby-Dick.” (Pg 153)

“John Hunter had spent an anxious spring finalizing plans to transfer his anatomy and natural history collection into its new home…But at last the work was finished and the remarkable building complete. Between the smart four-story town house fronting Leicester Square and the inconspicuous, dowdy-looking house at its rear, facing Castle Street, stretched a spectacular brick and glass structure providing a lecture theater, grand reception room, and a customer-built museum. Accommodating Hunter’s myriad businesses as surgeon, anatomist, teacher, and researcher while also fostering his continuing connections with London’s underworld, the dual-fronted house would later inspire Robert Louis Stevenson when writing his horror story, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Although the plot for the story came to Stevenson in a dream, he is said to have based Dr. Jekyll’s house—the setting for the melodramatic transformation from good to evil—on Hunter’s Leicester Square home. In the Gothic tale, written in 1886, when the house was still a familiar London landmark, the honest Dr. Jekyll had bought his house was still a familiar London landmark, the honest Dr. Jekyll had bought his house from “the heirs of a celebrated surgeon.” Stevenson described the visitors who entered the doctor’s home being led across a yard toward a lecture theater was from the “old dissecting-room door,” which opened onto a dingy thoroughfare at the rear of the house, that the grim-faced Mr. Hyde emerged to commit his murderous deeds.” (Pg 218)

“Enthusiastic young surgeons rushed to the Castle Street entrance to enroll for the autumn 1785 lectures, which began on October 10. After hanging their hats on the pegs ranged in the lobby, they signed the pupil’s register, which was kept on a desk beside the door to the lecture theatre. James Parkinson, who would later publish the first description of the “shaking palsy” that later bore his name, was one of the students in 1785; his notes would form one of the most comprehensive records of Hunter’s lectures.” (Pg 222)

“When Edward Jenner tested his smallpox vaccine on an eight-year old boy in 1796, thus establishing the practice of vaccination, which would save millions of lives, he was studiously following his tutor’s principles. When Joseph Lister tried out his carbolic-soaked lint in eleven patients in 1867, thus launching antiseptic practices that would prevent countless deaths, he was purposefully adopting his hero’s methods. And numberless pioneering surgeons down the years would similarly follow Hunter’s scientific principles in helping to render surgery safe and effective.” (Pg 275)
Profile Image for Christie.
100 reviews23 followers
January 26, 2013
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 is not a book for the faint-of-heart but is a book for anyone interested in how John Hunter influenced so many of the future generations of medical experts that have been a part of understanding and providing breakthroughs in healthcare over the last 200 years. The field of forensic science, dentistry, anthropology, geology and zoology, to name a few, all have a link back to the years of research conducted by John Hunter. The last two lines of the book sums it up nicely by William Clift who said, "From the beginning, I fancied, without being able to account for it, that nobody about Mr. Hunter seemed capable of appreciating him. He seemed to me to have lived before his time and to have died before he was sufficiently understood."
Profile Image for Haytham.
17 reviews2 followers
January 5, 2016
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 push myself to read any further although I would have loved to read the rest of this peculiar surgeon's adventure. I guess I have to find a different source.
Profile Image for Jenny.
890 reviews87 followers
December 29, 2016
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 treated by Hunter (e.g. "The Poet's Foot" and "The Lizard's Tail").
I highly recommend this book, but some parts are gruesome in their details since Hunter was involved with body snatching and since he dissected humans and animals, sometimes working on live animals as well. The descriptions didn't bother me at all, but I like the macabre and being grossed out. Some of the reviewers warned readers not to read the book while eating. I did so several times and was okay, but I'm just passing the warning along!
Profile Image for Charlene.
875 reviews485 followers
May 23, 2020
The Knife Man is a rather unfortunate title and is probably partly why this book wasn't really at the top of my reading list. It ended up on sale, along with The Butchering Art, through Audible.  If not for that sale, I probably would have skipped this one. that would have been a mistake. While it's not quite as spectacular as The Butchering Art, which tells the story of Joseph Lister's life, it is almost as good. Reading a biography of John Hunter seems long past due. I remember that back in college, John Hunter's name would be glossed over when talking about evolution, but I had definitely not learned about him in depth. What a dude!! He left his mark not only in the field of evolution but in helping continue to develop the scientific method, and certainly in the field of medicine and, in particular, surgery. 

Scottish surgeon John Hunter was an odd and obsessively methodical character. I feel so lucky to have happened upon this book so that I could be steeped in the history of how surgery progressed from the advances made in the mid 1700s, largely due to John Hunter's pioneering, yet unethical, approach to studying the human body. Hunter very regularly snatched bodies from the cemetery to grow his knowledge of muscles and tissues, which made him an expert anatomist and helped change the face of surgery and set the stage for Joseph Lister's later advances. I read Lister's biography in the Butchering Art first and Hunter's biography second. I definitely recommend reading Knife Man first and Butchering Art second, so that you can get a better sense of how advances in surgery progressed instead of trying to piece it together after reading it out of order. 

Hunter was extremely driven to figure out every aspect of human health. His obsession compelled him not only to dig up and steal as many bodies as he could get his hands on, but he even infected himself with syphilis in order to better understand this all too common disease he was constantly faced with treating. This seems an extreme measure under any circumstance, but he infected himself at a time when he was engaged to be married with the hopes of starting a family. Though Hunter was a truly exceptional researcher for his age and carried out experiments with the best methodology available at the time, he ended up making a huge mistake when it came to his study of syphilis. It was thought at the time that gonorrhea and syphilis were always cooccurring. Hunter needed a patient who had never had either STD who he could infect with just syphilis to see if gonorrhea also occurred. Since he knew that he had neither, he chose himself as the test subject. Unfortunately, he chose a sample that had both STDs. Since his basic model was flawed, his findings were flawed as well and set the science of STDs back quite a bit.

Hunter dabbled in tooth transplantation -- it was thought that taking healthy teeth from younger people would help give older people healthy teeth -- which served quite a lesson to the reader about what inequality between the rich and poor looked like in the mid 1700s. While tooth transplantation did not ultimately work, Hunter's transplants lasted longer than the transplants done by other surgeons of his time.    

Hunter set up an anatomy school that resulted in him collecting so many specimens of different animals that it would end up serving as the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. He and his family lived in crowded conditions because of his collection. Hunter really wanted to add a giraffe in his collection but his foyer was not tall enough to display the animal standing at full length. So Hunter had its legs lopped off most of the way and displayed the remainder of the giraffe in his entrance way. What a sight.  

Some notes on Hunter's life and career: 

Hunter's older sibling William was an anatomist. Hunter himself did not at first appear to be anything special. I think anyone who knew him in his youth would not have suspected he would become one of the world's foremost experts in anatomy and medicine. Hunter was one of the first anatomists to study the human fetus and was the first to suggest the blood supply for the mother and infant were separate.  

Hunter's painstakingly methodical study of blood and bloodletting helped him  develop humankind's understanding that inflammation, which was thought to be a pathology, was the body's response to disease and was not the disease itself. 

Hunter had to interrupt his studies at home to do a stint as an army surgeon. It was a lucky break to get Hunter as a surgeon if one was shot. It was thought at the time, before the Germ Theory, that digging out the bullet and fragments were the best treatment. Hunter felt that digging around would cause more harm than it would help. He was correct. Infection killed more of the men than the nonfatal gunshots did. Some men were better off not being treated at all if the bullet had not pierced a vital organ. 

Hunter taught pupil -- and later collaborator -- Edward Jenner, who discovered the smallpox vaccine. 

Profile Image for Jamie Collins.
1,421 reviews261 followers
March 4, 2012
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 obtain them. He dissected everything that he could get his hands on - yet he was conservative about practicing surgery on live humans, carefully weighing the risks and observing that the body often healed better on its own.

Hunter's other interests ranged from dentistry to zoology to geology, and he was unconcerned about upsetting orthodox religious views on the creation of the earth and the origin of animal species.

This is a great read, although some sections may disturb the squeamish. The author describes surgical procedures, the dissection of human cadavers and the vivisection of animals.
Profile Image for Wendy.
540 reviews148 followers
July 8, 2015
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 at that time. Treatments were passed down rather like mythology, and doubters were treated as social pariahs. If the very hierarchical medical community practiced bleeding because that's what "was generally done", a surgical apprentice could fail his exams for suggesting alternate treatments outside the accepted norm.

The colorful John Hunter changed all this, and this book makes a fascinating case for his revolutionary role in medical history without over-romanticizing him. Apparently his house at Leicester Square was used as the setting for RL Stevenson's Jekyll & Hyde, and Doctor Hunter himself certainly had a bit of that two-faced character in him, one moment saving a coachman's life by operating on his knee for no pay, the next conniving to receive the skeleton of the famous young "Irish Giant" to add to his collection of curiosities, despite the poor (still alive) man's utter abhorrence of the idea of post-mortem dissection. In all, this is a well-researched and written account of a fascinating man who isn't a household name, but perhaps should be.
19 reviews
June 16, 2008
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 "wisdom" of the day.

But onto the actual book. I had no problems with the author's actual writing -- the style was fine, good flow, etc, etc. The only thing that I had issue with was the jumping around from chapter to chapter. At times it was hard to figure out the timeline of the subject's life and in what sequence certain things happened. But overall this was an awesome and interesting read.
Profile Image for Cupcakes & Machetes.
365 reviews59 followers
April 26, 2019
You know you’ve worked in the medical field for awhile when you can read about gonorrhea and syphilis on your lunch without losing your appetite. Some people may count that as a negative, I count it as a positive. It takes a hell of a lot to ruin my lunch.

For myself, this was very much a one chapter at a time read. There is nothing wrong with it, it’s not even too text book like in any matter. The stories are fairly fascinating and John Hunter was a character, there just wasn’t the pull to dig in deep and not let up until I was finished. Perhaps in true Hunterian fashion, I had to contemplate the works and dissect the knowledge at my own pace.

John Hunter had a thirst for knowledge that could hardly be quenched. From his early days, until his last, he needed to know more about how the world worked. About anatomy, about evolution (though it wasn’t dared called that back then), and disease states. His approach to science greatly influenced the scientific method that we know today. He began to change how wounds were treated, depending less on blood letting and more on experimentation to find a better way. He improved surgical methods.

While he had many admirers, he had just as many enemies who did not like him challenging the accepted way to practice medicine. This almost never slowed him down though. He pushed boundaries that led to many advancements. He also had a few theories that ended up slowing down progress on other things, for example, he conducted an experiment to prove that gonorrhea and syphilis were essentially the same disease. There was a flaw in his method that he never did find out about, as we know today that they are not the same disease.

There are so many things that this one man is responsible for influencing in both science and medicine, that I could go on for pages. Instead, if you’re interested, go pick up this book. It will educate you far more than I would ever be able to. He was a revolutionary and a rebel, and you know how much I like rebels.

Warning: lots of animal torture.

“Hunter had died, as he had lived, in rebellion, speaking his mind.”
Profile Image for Helen.
534 reviews33 followers
January 2, 2011
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!
Profile Image for Betule Sairafi.
127 reviews31 followers
October 16, 2017
When other people make mistakes, it’s because they’re morons who should’ve listened to John Hunter. When John Hunter makes a mistake, it’s normal, that’s just what people were like then, they didn’t know any better, it’s okay let’s jus get over it and go back to insulting the other idiots.

Moore is extra reverent of her subject, almost insinuating that he can Do No Wrong! Even so, this book is full of a bunch of Cool Things. I almost wish I was John Hunter, except for the part where I intentionally inject myself with a chronic and fatal disease with no known cure.

According to this book, John Hunter was as influential as Forrest Gump. The most surprising thing is that he made it to the end of the book, even though he actually tastes body fluids in the dissecting room.
Profile Image for Richard.
Author 16 books61 followers
July 11, 2008
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 Hunter worked against, not so much out of pure rebelliousness but through a simple desire to provide his patients the best care he could manage and take the time to study the human body and related organisms to find how anatomy worked. The methodology of the 18th century was almost empericial in nature--doctors studied their patients from afar and usually prescribed treatment to barbers, who did all the nasty work. In fact, doctors weren't even expected to know anatomy and sometimes followed texts written by ancient Greeks when it came to medical knowledge. Moore is fair not to paint EVERY practitioner that way (for others, like John Hunter's own brother William seemed to have a vested interest in exploring the mysteries of the human body), for John Hunter did not have to work totally alone and in the dark, but this book details well the lengths John Hunter went through to learn about human anatomy and how nature works--endless hours of study dissecting human and animal subjects to form himself a menagerie of preserved anatomies and thorough documentation of his findings, which kept him busy almost seventeen hours a day easily.

And, Moore of course details the lengths John Hunter went through to get his case studies. Hunter did nothing short of grave robbing and human experimentation in his studies, receiving cadavers through a back door of his lab like some Dr. Frankenstein, or paying the poor for their use in experiments of his own. It is even related in one chapter that Hunter even possibly experimented on himself when trying to determine whether syphilis and gonorrhea were the same virus or two different diseases altogether.

Hunter's conclusions were not always accurate (or correct), and though he had found many techniques that became the basis for a lot of modern surgical practice, he didn't know all that much about sterilization, so many of his ideas were hindered by poor practice.

But this book is a wonderful study of a scientific mind, one that worked off of evidence and study rather than accepting knowledge without criticism from up on high. He proposed that monkey skulls and human skulls were quite similar and most likely formed from the same stem. Of course, Hunter had his critics in his time and his naysayers, but Moore gets quite deeply into the life and studies of this genius to whom we owe great debts. The book is also a great reminder that ideas don't come out of nowhere but are often developed over time--centuries, even. Was Hunter the true author of evolution and natural selection? No, for Darwin was the one who found the mechanism of evolution, so this book makes a great case for the evolution of ideas as well as the evolution of surgery. And along the way, many notables of history step in to make stage appearances--certainly, following the life of John Hunter is also following the story of 18th century thought and art.

Moore is a little too thrilled at times with the depth of her research, and some chapters become a little distracting for its weight of detail, but overall this is a great read, full of surprising and weighty information, and most of all the presentation of a thoughtful, rational mind--something that we don't really praise nowadays.
Profile Image for James Henderson.
1,982 reviews166 followers
February 26, 2021
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 catches the reader's attention through the use of intriguing episodes in his life. Told in a chronological style, the life of Hunter had many exciting episodes to recount 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) plus 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 whose health he aided 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 still exists to this very day. He would become Surgeon-Extraordinary to King George III and Surgeon-General of the British Army.

As in our day and earlier times the independent-minded forward thinker is not rewarded for his views by the establishment. 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 form the medicine of the future. Wendy Moore nicely relates the life of this giant of the enlightenment who changed the course of medicine for the better.
Profile Image for Paul.
48 reviews22 followers
June 18, 2011
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 benefitted from the improvements to the procedure I underwent, from the time of my mom's relative passing away to when I had it done. All of this, and a lot more, are the direct result of this man's fascinating life and his practice in the medical field and the standards, practices, and ideas he helped to establish.

Overall, this book is a great introduction into the world of medical surgery and history, at least with regards to modern day methods. It lets us see how, in an era when bloodletting and purging were still "tried and true" methods for handling all kinds of ailments, one man decided to take a more sober and evidence based approach towards treating sick and injured people.

One also gets to see other areas where John Hunter made his mark, especially in the area of natural sciences - one reads about his massive collection of natural oddities, ranging from skeletons of creatures mundane and rare to downright exotic, diseased organs, fossils, and so on and so forth - all of this during the era when people still believed that the world was 6,000 years old and evidence was barely starting to emerge that pointed to the contrary.

This books moves along at a fast pace, and is well-written with a lot of interesting facts and details that not only illuminate the average person about the beginning of modern surgical medicine and practices, but about the people of the time and those who helped contribute to health care as we have it today.

It was a fun read, from start to finish. It never got too bogged down with details or too technical. It feels a bit like part historical narrative, part biography, part "fun facts" read. For anyone who wants to know the how and why medicine is the way it is today, this is a great place to get a basic grasp of the history of it all.
Profile Image for Marguerite Kaye.
Author 218 books327 followers
January 31, 2016
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 than I can list, and through his lectures spawned a whole generation of like-minded surgeons who went on to change medicine forever. Hunter knew everyone who was anyone. Think of a famous figure of the Enlightenment, of a Lunar Man, a painter or a writer, and John Hunter would have known him or treated him or trained him or debated with him. Hunter was interested in any form of life, from bees to electric eels to zebras, as well as his second-to-none knowledge of the human being. He was the kind of man way, way ahead of his time who if he'd been around today would probably have split the atom in his lunch break.

This book is not for the faint-hearted. I know more now about dissecting and preserving and operating than I ever cared to. Details are not spared, and the rather questionable morality of the 18th Century anatomist is portrayed in all its dubious glory. This isn't quite a ripping yarn, but though it is impeccably researched, it's not a scholarly tome either. I devoured it, and I loved every page. Next stop, a visit to the Glasgow University Hunterian Museum which may have been the bequest of Hunter's brother William, but which contains any number of John Hunter's own handiwork. I'll be looking at all those glass cases with new eyes. Loved this book.
Profile Image for Mel Campbell.
Author 4 books73 followers
September 23, 2013
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 collection, which you can still visit; it's having its bicentenary this year!

Moore is clearly out to show how forward-thinking her subject was, and focuses on how hard he had to work to earn professional respect. But she doesn't shy from showing how Hunter was also obsessive and unethical in his pursuit of knowledge. One of the saddest episodes here is the way he stalked the ailing 'Irish Giant' Charles Byrne in order to add his skeleton to his museum.

The amount of detail here is impressive, but there's a liveliness that makes it enjoyable to read. It's as much a portrait of 18th-century London as of Hunter himself, and I enjoyed hearing a different perspective on, say, the grave-robbers who supplied cadavers for anatomists, which I'd already read about in Catharine Arnold's Necropolis: London and Its Dead .
Profile Image for Spencer.
137 reviews8 followers
June 23, 2010
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 amassed an astonishing collection of normal/diseased human, animal and plant specimens with which he created his own museum of marvels. Several interesting aspects of this book include the shocking ways in which he attained the thousands of human corpses he needed for all his experimentation and instruction; how he was able to acquire the skeletal remains of a human giant; the experiment in which he infected himself with venereal disease; the long list of famous historical figures who sought out his medical advice; and the constant fight for respect he waged with against surgical colleagues, even while he was single handedly revolutionizing their field. I found this book to be very enjoyable and would recommend to anyone interested in medicine, scientific research, and history in general. Great book!
10 reviews
November 25, 2008
This is an excellent biography of John Hunter, who is considered to be the father of modern surgery. He was never given the title of Doctor, oddly enough, because surgeons were not considered physicians, though from what I can tell from the book, John Hunter was a lot more effective than any of his so-titled colleagues. This book is very detailed and includes illustrations and pictures depicting a selection of Hunter's anatomic preparations (he was England's most experienced anatomist, meaning he'd cut up more illegally-obtained human corpses than anyone else) and also includes excerpt's from Hunter's own notes as well as those of various students at his and his brother's anatomy school. Surgeries are explicitly described, enough to make you shudder at your own mental picture.

This isn't a fast read, really, but it's fascinating. If you have any interest at all in scientific deduction and human progress, this might be a good read for you. I found it at Half Price Books!
Profile Image for bup.
622 reviews56 followers
August 17, 2013
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 dissections in dank labs, real anatomical history, and a nice portrait of London in the 1700's.
Profile Image for Dawn.
1,241 reviews72 followers
December 18, 2015
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 middle of it.

This was a very well done biography on the man and the era.
Profile Image for Andrew.
276 reviews30 followers
September 9, 2019
Never ask me what I have said, or what I have written; but if you will ask me what my present opinions are, I will tell you.

Wendy Moore has written a wonderful, virtuosic biography of John Hunter. The man was a tour de force, and a pre-eminent figure in medicine, surgery, obstetrics, geology, evolution, and didactic style, at a time when the Enlightenment was emerging from the darkest ages of medical understanding. It is astonishing what the medical profession did not know in the mid to late 1700s.

Hundreds would come to study under Hunter’s tutelage at St. George’s Hospital, London, over decades. He had contempt for the written word and proudly showed a prospective student’s father a room of half-dissected cadavers: “These are the books your son will learn under my direction; the others are fit for very little.”

Hunter spent time in the British military, discovering that dilating gunshot wounds and removing all bullet fragments was often more morbid than leaving the wounds alone.

He spent years in dentistry, performing dental transplants from young paupers directly into the caried mouths of sugary-tea-swilling upper crust Londoners. He published one of the first texts on the topic.

He discovered that the testes descended gradually in utero. He described the morphologic development of the gravid uterus with his brother, William.

He improved upon the technique of ligating popliteal aneurysms, to that point an often-fatal procedure.

Hunter was dissecting everything he could find, smelling and tasting gastric juices and semen.

He collected ~7,000 animal specimens, most without pathology, which informed his understanding of human anatomy, physiology, and other disciplines.

He was prescient in predicting Darwin’s publications of the following century, by noticing the morphologic similarities among the thousands of animals specimens he dissected. Darwin would be a regular visitor and contributor to the Hunterian Museum after Hunter’s death.

Jenner (smallpox vaccine) was a pupil. Philip Syng Physick was the prospective student mentioned above. Hunter gave advice to Byron, Hume, the King, Benjamin Franklin, and thousands of commoners.

And he was deeply unethical by modern standards, and even by those of his own day. He was directly engaged in the body snatching trade his entire career. He bribed gravesmen to expressly counter the last known wishes of the deceased (a 7.5 foot-tall Irishman, for example), to boil his body and display the skeleton in his museum. He planned poorly and left his entire family penniless, and was betrayed by a longtime friend and student, who stole and destroyed much of his written work.

This is a wonderful read.
Profile Image for Pamela Mclaren.
1,275 reviews80 followers
January 27, 2020
Ever wondered when medicine made the leap from superstition and ancient ideas based on something called "humors"? Well, this is the book that shares how that happened; when "surgeons" took on the task of finally looking at the human body and exploring its depths for clues to disease and injury to advance how doctors should treat and cure patients.

In Wendy Moore's capable hands, we learn not only about the world of medicine in the 1700s but are introduced to the maverick explorer into the wonders of life, illness and death not only in humans but in the animal world and hence opened the eyes of hundreds of future practitioners to the scientific form of studying the human body: John Hunter, the Scottish surgeon who became one of most distinguished scientists and surgeons of his day.

It wasn't an easy time for surgeons to go beyond the accepted bounds of then medical practices ... even when the treatments of those times did nothing to help the ill. Things like bloodletting patients, which in reality only weakened their already suffering bodies. Remember there were no antibiotics, not anesthesia in those days and pain medication was usually alcohol, opium and laudenium.

But a few surgeons, like John Hunter, were already questioning and fighting the valiant fight to change the practices to something better, even at risk to his livelihood and in the case of a few experiments, his own health, i.e., when he exposed himself to a venereal disease in an attempt to track the disease. Hunter helped to improve understanding of human teeth, bone growth and remodeling, inflammation, gunshot wounds, venereal diseases, digestion, the functioning of the lacteals, child development, the separateness of maternal and foetal blood supplies, and the role of the lymphatic system.

This is fascinating reading and quite easy to read as well.
Profile Image for Michelle.
783 reviews25 followers
January 18, 2018
What a fascinating book—I had no idea that one person made so much progress for medicine! I wondered if I might be squeamish, but somehow Wendy Moore's excellent writing made it all very interesting. It's odd that I'm mad at people who aren't even alive anymore because of the way they restricted him or tried to steal his ideas. Now I'm anxious for 2020 to come (the Hunterian Museum is closed until then).
Profile Image for SueSue.
181 reviews4 followers
July 21, 2018
"John Hunter" is now and forevermore my answer to the question, "If you could meet one historical figure...?"
Wow, was this guy ahead of his time. Passionate about biology and anatomy, and seemed genuinely likeable too. By the end of the book I felt like I knew him so well, I actually got a little choked up when he died.
Profile Image for Donna.
832 reviews5 followers
November 8, 2020
An impressive biography of a very impressive man. And more information on the history of medicine, surgery and everything else to do with the physical sciences. Dr. John Hunter was way ahead of his time when it came to just about everything, though he was unwise in finances and in finding human subjects for his experiments.

The cover says something about not reading this when you are trying to eat. I agree.
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