Review: The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery

The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery
The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery by Wendy Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You’ve probably never heard of John Hunter, but if you’ve ever had (and survived!) surgery, if you’ve ever been to the dentist, or if you’ve ever taken your pet to the veterinarian, you owe him some thanks. (Full disclosure: I have a personal interest of sorts in this story because my children are related to John Hunter and his almost equally distinguished brother William on their father’s side.)

John Hunter started off as a penniless country lad from Scotland and ended up as a penniless, much-admired, much-reviled anatomist and surgeon; the story of his life and controversial opinions will fascinate anyone interested in books on the history of medicine or science. Hunter learned the art of dissection at his older brother William’s lab, his subjects illicitly stolen bodies from local gibbets and graveyards; he rose to prominence and was much-loved by his students, although not by the other surgeons at the hospital where he practiced.

In a time when little was known of the origins of life on earth or of the workings of the human body, John Hunter sought to bring light to these and many other subjects; unfortunately, some of his ideas were too far advanced for others to accept. I was amazed not only by how much knowledge Hunter developed and shared with his students (his disciples included Edward Jenner, who invented the smallpox vaccine), but by how his detractors, including his own brother-in-law, worked so diligently after Hunter’s death to try and erase every mention of him from history. Highly recommended.

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