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The Knife Man: Blood, Body-snatching and the Birth of Modern Surgery [Paperback]

Wendy Moore
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
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Book Description

3 April 2006


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 destined for display in his remarkable, macabre museum.

Maverick medical pioneer, adored teacher, brilliant naturalist, Hunter was a key figure of the Enlightenment who transformed surgery, advanced biological understanding and even anticipated the evolutionary theories of Darwin. He provided inspiration both for Dr Jekyll and Dr Dolittle. But the extremes to which he went to pursue his scientific mission raised question marks then as now.

John Hunter's extraordinary world comes to life in this remarkable, award-winning biography written by a wonderful new talent.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam (3 April 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0553816187
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553816181
  • Product Dimensions: 12.8 x 19 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 121,719 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"Wendy Moore has done justice to this marvellous man in a biography packed with gruesome facts and eye-opening perceptions. It is an accomplished achievement and a splendid read" (The Times)

"Moore's feel for pace and narrative is impeccable. She excels on the nitty-gritty of his work - the carving, digging, slicing and bottling - but makes us understand why these horrors were wonders. She is, at last, the biographer Hunter deserves" (Independent)

"The primitive operations without anaesthesia, the bitter rivalries and battles, the struggle against snobbery and orthodoxy - all set against a kaleidoscopic Hogarthian backdrop of gin-shops, brothels, elegant drawing rooms, charnel houses and crude operating theatres. This is a truly fascinating read" (Dr Alan Maryon Davis, Writer and Snr Consultant, Guy’s Hospital)

"Marvellous... There is wit here, without banality; there is scholarship, without pomposity; there is history of the Georgian period that drives you to seek more about that same period - and there can be no greater compliment for a biographer. A classic unputdownable page-turner. It's a winner all round - and now I've finished it, I'm going to start all over again" (Claire Rayner, writer and health adviser)

"Wendy Moore has written an immensely readable account of one of the most fascinating individuals of the 18th century. A thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining biography" (Patrick McGrath, author of Port Mungo)

Book Description

The vivid, often gruesome portrait of the 18th century pioneering surgeon and father of modern medicine, John Hunter.

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Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
4.8 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
When John Hunter was born in 1728, medicine and surgery was still in a dark age riven with ancient beliefs, an unwillingness to accept proven discoveries and an even great unwillingness to change.

John Hunter, by sheer hard work and dedication opened up the human body as no surgeon or anatomist had done for over 150 years, and people looked, listened and many learned. His influence on his students would see great names in surgery such as John Abernethy and Percival Pott, who, in their own right, took Hunter's teaching and practice into the operating theatres of Britain. This was the beginning of a new dawn for surgery, anatomy and science.

Wendy Moore has created a masterpiece for historians of medicine and science, as this book has been sourced from many primary sources, which she has brought together to provide a readable, if somewhat gruesome account of John Hunter, who by all accounts has to be the British Vesalius.

Although books on the history of medicine come and go, Knife Man will be up there with the front runners. This book will be an excellent and informative read for students of the history of medicine, doctors, surgeons and those with a fascination for the medical past. It is very reasonably priced and deserves every one of the five stars I have awarded.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Book 5 Dec 2006
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The Hunter brothers are a complete breed of their own. It amazes me to see how far we have progressed on in both science and medicine. Certainly, ethical issues were raised then but played less than a major role then compared to now!

Wendy Moore has written a brilliant book which has been very well researched. I am very impressed with the way she has written the book. She has manage to take you through the 17th century explaining what the present society is like, what the Hunter brothers achieved, done and given to the world, the elite medical society and the customers it serves. It explains very well the many significant symbols and discoveries in modern medicine and how science and medicine (or the medical professionals) will do anything both in quest of knowledge and to achieve name and glory. The book is not dull at all as it takes you through to the life of John Hunter during his childhood, his adolescent and adulthood. She also involves those surrounding him and explains each of their role, to whom their life is related to him or stood independently. She talks about the squabbles and the disagreement between members of the medical professionals and the competitiveness felt between them during that era.

It is not for the faint-hearted as there are descriptions of body parts (described brilliantly - it makes your stomach churned!) and how they are dismembered and obtained, in the name of science.

I do recommend this book. A visit to the Hunterian Museum at Glasgow University should be followed up upon completion of this book to give a better appreciation of the things described. There is an original copy of the Gravid Uterus based I think at Glasgow University Library. Certainly you can still see the plaster casts of the stages in pregnancy at the Anatomy Museum based also at Glasgow University.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Read 8 Jun 2008
This is an excellent biography of John Hunter, one of the most famous surgeons to ever have lived. The author is an expert writer and whilst it can be a cliché to speak of history reading like fiction that certainly is the case in this book. We map the progress of his life and the discoveries he makes within the field of medicine and science. Most of the science is wonderfully explained so that even most lay reader will be able to appreciate the discoveries. The sinister side is not left out either, whilst Hunter may have been a medical genius it is certain that he engaged in less praiseworthy activities such as robbing bodies from graves. Hunter's personal details are given here also, we see his upbringing, his marriage and his feuds with his brother. We see also of his successes, the pupils he inspired include Edward Jenner who developed the smallpox inoculation, Abernethy who founded the medical school at Bart's and Blizzard who founded one on the Royal London. But it wasn't only doctors that became Hunter's pupil, both Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon were pupils of his anatomy school. This is an extraordinary story of an extraordinary man whose legacy is still with us today.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hunter resurrected 24 Mar 2013
This is a fine biography of a fascinating man.

John Hunter [1728-93], a self-taught Scot, became the leading surgeon-physiologist of his age and perhaps the most justly celebrated surgeon of any age. His plaque in Westminster Abbey commemorates him as `The Founder of Scientific Surgery.' For later practitioners his predominance symbolised the arrival of surgery as physic's peer. He never went to university. He never attended medical school. He started his career in 1748 as dogsbody to his older brother. One of his major responsibilities was the clandestine procuring of corpses for William's school, and entailed both liaising with resurrectionists and serving as one himself.

His appetite for hands-on experience was insatiable. In 1756 John was appointed a house surgeon as St Georges Hospital, and had an easy source of corpses from the dead house, or mortuary, at his disposal. In 1760 he took a commission as staff surgeon in the army, the battlefield providing the perfect milieu for further empirical research.

Inured from the common distastes of mankind, and without sophisticated methods of scientific analysis, anatomists such as John Hunter used all the means at their disposal to further their knowledge of the body and its workings, including taste. Clinical detachment could be taken to extremes. He observed that `the gastric juice is a fluid, somewhat transparent, and a little saltish or brackish to the taste', while `semen would appear, both from the smell and taste, to be a mawkish kind of substance; but when held some time in the mouth, it produces a warmth similar to spices, which lasts some time.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars The Knife Man.
Again, I'm delighted with the copy received. John Hunter is a hero of mine, of long standing. What he said of himself is still absolutely true all these years later, "You will... Read more
Published 3 days ago by Molly McMillan
5.0 out of 5 stars biography of John Hunter, a great man of Science
I am so glad I read this book. Now I have in my mind an image of a scientist who is uncompromising, valorous, insightful, rightfully proud. Read more
Published 21 days ago by Molly Johnson
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating read
A biography and survey of the revolution in medical science that ushered in modern thinking and methods, this is more than that - a very well-told human story as good as any... Read more
Published 2 months ago by AlanT
4.0 out of 5 stars Mostly great but there are one or two moments.....
Generally I loved reading this book, there is masses of information in it which is fascinating.
I has read a couple of Wendy Moores other books and her style is great, there... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Janie U
4.0 out of 5 stars Persrvere with this, it's worth it.
I chose this for our book group and it had mixed reviews It is slightly hard work in parts but you will learn something on every page about both Hunter and developments in... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Mary Evans
5.0 out of 5 stars ... the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to ...
Quite a number of Shakespeare's shocks are dealt with here.

Understandably a book of this nature is sometimes rather gruesome. Read more
Published 9 months ago by PAUL SPARHAM
4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating book
A great insight into early medical practices. I would recommend this book to medical historians and anyone interested in early medical practices.
Published 16 months ago by Martha Joyce Reekie
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, detailed book about John Hunter
After a visit to the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, London, I bought this book and became riveted by Hunter's story. Read more
Published 17 months ago by J.F.Penn
5.0 out of 5 stars Probably one of the best books I ever read.
I knew i had to read this book and I was completely right about that. This is a great study of one of the greatest scientists of the 18th century. Read more
Published 21 months ago by Mackthe Knife
5.0 out of 5 stars A really well written book
This book is one of the best reads in ages. It usually takes quite a bit for me to be hooked, but this book is so well researched and then written in such a way that you are easily... Read more
Published on 18 April 2012 by Drgarold
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