Jamie Collins's Reviews > The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery

The Knife Man by Wendy Moore
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's review
Feb 02, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: history-and-biography, science-and-medicine
Read from February 26 to March 02, 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.
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Reading Progress

02/26/2012 page 13
4.0% "The Coachman’s Knee: In 1785 Hunter pioneered an operation to repair an aneurysm at the back of a man’s knee, possibly caused by by the wearing of high riding boots. When the coachman later died (of an unrelated fever) Hunter dissected the leg, observing that it was perfectly healthy. The leg can still be seen at the Hunterian museum."
02/26/2012 page 45
13.0% "Hunter began his career procuring bodies for his brother's anatomy school. "At the peak of their reign of terror... professional gangs would unearth a body from a shallow grave in fifteen minutes flat. .... Paupers' graves were the most popular... Richer folk took care to protect their dead in locked vaults or lead coffins.""
02/27/2012 page 63
18.0% "Hunter's older brother takes credit for Hunter's discovery (through dissection of... never mind) that fetal and maternal blood supplies are separate. Hunter also begins to work on living patients, studying with William Cheselden, who was famous for his procedure to remove bladder stones (which for some reason were much more common than they are today)."
02/27/2012 page 101
29.0% "The animal vivisections make for tough reading, although “animal experiments were broadly condoned”. (Samuel Johnson objected.) While serving in the army Hunter learned to be conservative about surgery, observing that bullet wounds often healed better when not subjected to intervention which caused additional blood loss, shock and infection."
02/28/2012 page 125
37.0% "Hunter entered the dentistry field and popularized live-tooth transplants, where healthy teeth were bought from the poor, yanked out and immediately plopped into the gaping mouths of the rich (who were squeamish about accepting teeth from cadavers). The transplanted teeth wouldn't bond permanently but could adhere for several years."
02/29/2012 page 185
54.0% ""Venereal infections were rampant in Georgian London" and this crazy guy deliberately infected himself with gonorrhea in order to study the course of the disease. He accidentally infected himself with syphilis at the same time, and published a treatise confirming the common belief that gonorrhea and syphilis were different forms of the same disease."
02/29/2012 page 217
63.0% "​The “Irish Giant” Charles Byrne, who was nearly 8 feet tall, was horrified when Hunter expressed interest in obtaining his corpse after his death. Byrne made his friends promise to secure his body in a lead coffin and plunge it into the Channel, but Hunter bribed the undertaker and stole the body in a macabre caper."
03/01/2012 page 237
69.0% "Hunter was consulted about Benjamin Franklin’s bladder stones and Lord Byron’s crooked foot. He operated on Adam Smith’s hemorrhoids and removed a tumor from the face of Prime Minster William Pitt the Younger. He tried to remove the composer Haydn’s painful nasal polyps, but Haydn backed out (frantically) at the last minute."
03/03/2012 page 342
100.0% "Long before Darwin, Hunter concluded that diverse animals had developed over vast periods of time from common ancestors. His paper on geology mentioned a passage of “many thousand centuries” and his friends in the Royal Society urged him to change the timeline to “many thousand years” to conform to orthodox views that the Earth was 6000 years old. (Created on October 23, 4004 B.C., according to Archbishop Ussher.)"

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