617: The Knife Man by Wendy Moore

by Gerard


617.092: Moore, Wendy. The Knife Man: Blood, Body-Snatching and the Birth of Modern Surgery. London: Bantam, 2006. 535 pp. ISBN 0-5538-1618-7.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 600: Technology
  • 610: Medicine
  • 617: Miscellaneous branches of medicine and surgery
  • +092: Biography

In the middle of the 18th century, surgery was still a gruesome practice. Bloodletting and induced vomiting were standard procedures for all manners of ailments. But, like in all the sciences, one practitioner decided to upend convention and actually study the field from the ground up, asking basic questions and looking for observable phenomena. Wendy Moore’s The Knife Man chronicles the life of John Hunter, a doctor from rural Scotland who would almost single-handedly set right the world of surgery and change medicine for the better.

Hunter’s life (1728 – 1793) was full of fun and fantastical experiences. When most people just took the teachings of Galen at face value, he studied the anatomy of corpses dug from graveyards (a crime in those days) to further his understanding. He prepared his own specimens (which his brother then profited from) for teaching classes. His laboratory inspired the famous tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He even acquired the skeleton of the seven-foot-seven Irish giant Charles Byrne to learn more about it. He worked with Edward Jenner (inventor of the small pox vaccine), compiled the first study of the human fetal development, and woefully used himself as a guinea pig for research on venereal diseases.  Needless to say, the man did a lot to contribute to his field.

Moore’s writing is breezy, filled with fun anecdotes, and interesting to boot. The book may seem daunting when you first pick it up, but it reads quickly. She includes a fair amount of background history and science to flesh out the biography. Hunter seems very deserving of his statue in Leicester Square after reading this one. A thick but delightful book.