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Informative, but lacking the human interest element
on 20 October 2015
When John Hunter travelled from his rural Scottish home to London in September 1748 to join his brother William, already an eminent surgeon and anatomist in his own right, medicine and surgery were still based heavily on medieval practices and ancient Greek ideals.
William and John - and later, John alone - would work tirelessly through the latter part of the 18th Century and into the 19th to break down these outdated principles, opening up the human body in a way no surgeon or anatomist has done before or since, and in the process learning key elements about its workings that would change the face of medicine.
Often ridiculed by his peers, Hunter would overcome numerous obstacles throughout his life in his quest to re-educate the ignorant and arrogant surgeons of his day. And from his teachings, great names in surgery were born including Edward Jenner, Percival Pott and John Abernathy.
After reading Moore's astoundingly brilliant 'Wedlock' about the life of Lady Mary Eleanor Bowes, I was chomping at the bit to read 'The Knife Man', certain I was about to be treated to another brilliantly executed non-fiction story about a real-life historical character. How disappointed I was then, to discover that this contains none of the emotion, great scene-setting or vivid storytelling that 'Wedlock' does. Instead we're treated to a monotonous blow-by-blow account of Hunter's life and work from 1748 onwards, which is lacking any kind of emotion at all.
It's repetitive too, with the same facts about Hunter and his work being used again and again. One section which stood out in particular was Moore's description of the putrefaction of a corpse, which is explained in great detail on one page only to be repeated almost word for word two pages later.
I also found it difficult at times to identify which Hunter Moore is referring to. Pages went by where I thought I was reading about John, only to discover I was actually reading about William. And because the story often leaps about from subject to subject, and person to person, there were times where I almost lost the plot altogether.
I appreciate this is an immense story to try and cover, but in my opinion Moore has done it a disservice. What could have been an engaging, immersive story which made you understand and appreciate Hunter for the genius he was, instead comes across as a monotonous text book full of bland descriptions and quotes from his journals. As a result the human interest element was lost on me and I came away feeling massively disappointed by the whole thing.