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Customer reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
50
4.7 out of 5 stars
The Knife Man: Blood, Body-snatching and the Birth of Modern Surgery
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on 24 January 2017
A visit to the Hunterian Museum at Glasgow University and the excellent book Wedlock lead me to this book. Amazingly well researched history of surgery, essential reading for anyone destined to have a career in medicine.
It is also a thoroughly good read.
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on 21 August 2017
Wanna know about the history of surgery? This is the book to read before you go in for that triple heart bypass. Informative and interesting for all those who have a taste for life's darker side. A very good read.
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on 17 June 2017
Great
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on 5 June 2014
An excellent book would recommend this to anyone with or without an interest in medical history,a great achievement by the author.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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on 26 January 2017
This book was recommended by a surgeon friend of mine. By the time I had read the sample on Amazon I was hooked. It details the life & times of John Hunter, a surgeon who was well ahead of his time. If you have any interest in either medicine or the Georgian era then this is the book for you.
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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.
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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.'
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