9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 6 June 2006
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.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on 5 December 2006
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 24 March 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.'
John himself became the prolific dissector of man and beast, amassing a huge and hugely expensive collection of anatomical specimens illustrating every aspect of the physiology of all life. Over 13,000 of these would become the basis of the Hunterian Museum of the future Royal College of Surgeons. They included the still extant skeleton of the Irish giant, the 7' 8" John Byrne which Hunter had purchased in 1783 for a reputed sum of £500 against the express wishes of the dying giant who had feared some such fate, after fierce competition with rivals, and after having to resort to bribing the undertaker guarding the body from the likes of Hunter. Through his experiential approach to anatomy and the intricate observation of his vast collection Hunter would place the skull of a chimpanzee in the same series as his human specimens, would assert that Adam and Eve were indisputably black, and would, in his writings, declare that all animals, including humans, were descended from common ancestors. All evidence of this latter heresy was suppressed by his brother in law and did not come to light until 1861, shortly after the publication of the Origin of the Species. It was fortunate, and perhaps significant, that Charles Darwin's father, Erasmus, had been one of John Hunter's most attentive anatomy students.
Another was the young Astley Cooper. Although the content of Hunter's lectures were revelatory and revolutionary, his delivery of them was not, and before each occasion he had to self-medicate with laudanum. All but the most able students were put off attending, and on one occasion a male skeleton had to be wheeled into the room to join the audience to allow Hunter to begin with the traditional greeting of `Gentlemen.'
In 1783 Hunter bought a large house at 28 Leicester Fields or Square and the adjacent property at 13 Castle Street (now Charing Cross Road). Between them they accommodated his family, a museum for his ever burgeoning collection, and a dissecting room with a back door onto Castle Street through which, over a drawbridge, cadavers were transported at dead of night. This house of a `celebrated surgeon' and `dissecting room door' would later feature in Stevenson's schizophrenic novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and in many ways Hunter himself, as the essential surgeon-anatomist, could be epitomised by the suspicious populace both as the kindly, good hearted and expansive Dr Jekyll of Leicester Square and the secretive, and sinister Mr Hyde whose nocturnal comings and goings were always through the `dissecting room door.'
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 8 June 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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
I have always had an interest in medical history since studying it at school, and so when I came across this book I thought I would give it a read. This is Wendy Moore's first book and it is well written and presented.
Wendy does more than bring to life the story of John Hunter's life, but also shows what it was like in the Eighteenth Century of his time, and thus places his life in context. This is truly a remarkable biography about a brilliant man. John Hunter was a poorly educated Scottish farm-boy who probably had dyslexia and came into the world of medicine almost by accident, but then becoming the foremost mind of his time. Hunter started as an anatomist but went on to study and look at surgery, medicine, biology, evolution theory, dentistry, veterinary science, geology, artificial insemination, suspended animation, and other topics.
What Hunter taught and inspired in others put surgery and medicine on a scientific footing and crafted the modern medicine that we know today. What Hunter started has inevitably led to the saving of countless lives, and whilst his inspiration lives on will save countless other lives in the future.
This book is a truly fascinating read of the science of surgery, body snatching, plagiarism and jealousy. I thoroughly enjoyed this and would wholeheartedly recommend it to others as it is so interesting and a real pleasure to read.
This is an absolutely wonderful book. Not only is it about an explorer of genius, but it portrays an entire historical epoch - a crucial phase in the late Enlightenment - when practical achievements were being worked out, when what we call the modern era was being born. At the center of it is John Hunter, an irascible man of extraordinary energy and will, on a quest that would forever change the practice of surgery. But before his career as a surgeon, he was a comparative anatomist, fascinated with the variations of life.
Hunter was the perfect Enlightenment man: rather than trust to ancient texts and their faulty though time-honored prescriptions, he developed his own method: he observed, experimented, and recorded the results. While this may sound like a no-brainer today, it was far from what surgeons were doing at that time. His boldness and compulsion to seek his own truth alienated many of his colleagues, who preferred to follow procedures used for millennia, such as blood-letting and the immediate removal of limbs and diseased organs by the crudest methods. All of their assumptions are wonderfully explained in historical context. Thus, you can see an illustration of what was changing during that period, with the establishment of methods for truly scientific medicine.
Hunter worked 19 hours per day, seeing patients and then spending late hours dissecting and recording his observations. The amount of knowledge that Hunter generated, often stolen by others to advance their careers, is truly astonishing. He proved, for example, that embryos are not fully formed at conception, but that they develop through phases that virtually all animal species share. He noted anatomical similarities across species and even families, things that no one had observed because of the biases they learned in ancient texts, including the Bible. The lengths to which he went were incredible, including perhaps inflecting himself with deadly diseases (e.g. STDs) to study their effects. It is truly awe-inspiring. And all of it wound up in the museum he was creating, which displayed the best collection of comparative anatomy in the world at that time.
In addition, his life held great drama. Starting from a poverty stricken background and without much formal schooling, he rose to the top of his profession with only a little help. From the start, due to a shortage of bodies to dissect, Hunter developed a network of grave robbers (and which may have actually inspired the Jekyll/Hyde story - the author does not shy from questioning his ethics!). He fought the establishment and gained a devoted following, perhaps his greatest achievement as his 200+ students went on to disseminate his ideas (and skepticism) into medical education as well as surgical practices. He fell out with his older brother, whom he surpassed as a scientist but not as a professional operator. Finally, he had a happy and unusual marriage with a poet, whose circle included Haydn, Johnson, and Hume (a close relative).
For me, this was the ideal vacation book: I was utterly engrossed by it as the writing style is compulsively readable, the narrative brisk, and the ideas fascinating. It is rare that I find such a first-rate historical and scientific narrative and I can only hope that the author produces more. This book is a gem, a masterpiece, and I will offer it as a gift to many people. Warmly recommended.
on 15 July 2011
This really is a gripping book about one the most fascinating men in Georgian England. Moore's ability to bring Hunter's true personality to the page propels the narrative through almost seventy years of countless achievements, seemingly unlimited vision and clashes which remain unnervingly relevant to this very day.
The arrangement of the book is excellent - each chapter explores an individual theme in Hunter's work (physiology, surgical education, war medicine, evolutionary theory etc...) as well as continuing his life story. Moore expertly shows how Hunter's early life and clear views resonated throughout his work - he not only dared to bring scientific principles to surgery but also refused to accept the class system that controlled his adopted society. Whilst the focus is on Hunter, key players are fleshed out and we are in no doubt as the influences the author believes they had on Hunter.
This book has also been meticulously researched - the Key Sources and Notes sections at the back testify to this. However you never feel as though you are bouncing between historical texts since Moore has a knack of interconnecting the vast number of sources she has clearly consulted. Indeed, there are points in the book when she freely admits that history has left us unclear of what actually occurred - did Hunter infect himself with syphilis? - and I really appreciated that at these junctures she evaluated the evidence for the reader. Moore does not shy away from criticising her protagonist either - we are often reminded his blunt personality or bizarre social actions.
A real strength to this book is Moore's way of leaving the reader to reach their own moral judgements on some of Hunter's more controversial actions. Grave-robbing, vivisection and experimentation without the patients consent occur throughout the book - Moore acknowledges the perhaps dubious nature of the actions but does seek to defend Hunter or impose her own moral stand-point.
Two small complaints:
(1) For a man who collected such a vast array of oddities the picture sections were surprisingly devoid of examples. Whilst Hunter's collection was devastated in 1941 when a bomb fell on the museum, many many specimens still exist in the Hunterian Museum in London.
(2) Once Hunter dies the book ends rapidly. Whilst the effects of his theories are clearly set out through-out the book, little is said of where his vast collection ended up. Indeed the 1941 bombing is only mentioned once in passing in the middle of the book, and it would have been interesting to see the extent to which his preparations and writings had permeated the globe.
However, overall this is a brilliantly written book that any reader should find gripping from page 1 to page 530-odd. Heartily recommended.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 30 June 2011
An excellent read, its both a good story and a guide to surgery in the 18th Century. I agree with the authors claim that John Hunter is the father of modern surgery. This book is well written and researched it examines the development of the scientific development of surgery against a background of ignorance and egoes. I enjoyed his exploits as a military surgeon and how he contributed to the development of the military surgeon against the ideologies of the age. I would recommend this book to anyone who has a interest in the development of surgery.
on 30 March 2014
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. And he belongs to a favorite science of mine, biology. He spent his life understanding (from scratch) the anatomy of plants, animals, and humans and their fundamental similarities. He dissected bodies, experimented on himself, doctored many, wrote papers, founded a museum of evolution (nearly a century before Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species), lectured to hundreds of students who went on to found surgical schools and invent vaccination methods and other new life-saving technologies. All this at a time (1728-1793) when anatomical knowledge, dentistry, surgery, autopsy were in their infancy and when leeching and bloodletting were de rigueur solutions to any ailment. His life was astoundingly productive and his method of thinking and exploring new knowledge was a model of rational, independent judgment.
This biography of his life and work, by Wendy Moore, is a thrilling read but also thoroughly researched and well-articulated, giving the full context of Hunter’s innovative ideas. Please do not let the inexplicably gory subtitle and the skull on the cover mislead you into thinking this book is primarily about crime or death. Not at all! It is about life and science, and a great man.
on 6 July 2012
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. A pioneer in nearly every medical science. I studied medicine myself and have always kept a keen interest in the history of medicine and science. But the writer, Wendy Moore is a master in her genre, you can see,feel, hear and even smell the 18th century and the book catches you in every aspect. John and William Hunter were giants in their profession and John was probably the greatest anatomist of his century. The father of modern scientific surgery, the father of modern veterinary science and the one that pointed Charles Darwin towards his Origin of Species. Contemporary of Captain Cook, Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson and many other great men. Member of the Royal Society, friend of great scientists, collector of strange creatures, fossils and a lot more and last but not least a great scientist.
Wendy, you are a great writer and thank you for this remarkable and wonderful book !