The Knife Man
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The colourful and often gruesome life of the 18th-century pioneering surgeon and anatomist John Hunter generally regarded as the father of modern medicine
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The Knife Man by Wendy Moore
When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his gothic horror story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, he reputedly based the house of the genial doctor turned fiend on the home of the 18th century surgeon and anatomist John Hunter. The choice was understandable, for Hunter combined an altruistic determination to advance scientific knowledge with dark dealings that brought him into daily contact with the sinister Georgian underworld. In 18th century London, Hunter was a man both acclaimed and feared. Despite humble beginnings and poor academic prowess, John Hunter was to become the best-known anatomist of his day. At a time when operations were crude, painful and often fatal, Hunter revolutionized surgical practice through his groundbreaking scientific experiments. Rejecting Classical doctrines and medieval superstitions, he grounded surgery in experimental research and factual evidence. Driven by an insatiable curiosity, Hunter dissected thousands of human bodies, using the knowledge he gained to improve medical care for countless patients. Treating not only the poor but also some of the most illustrious characters of the time, such as Joshua Reynolds and the young Lord Byron, he was appointed Surgeon Extraordinary to King George III and served in the Seven Years War where, following long, bloody battles, he patched up the unfortunate casualties' musket wounds and bayonet injuries. Considered by many to be the father of modern surgery, Hunter was also an eminent naturalist; he dissected the first creatures brought back from Captain Cook's voyages to Australia and kept exotic animals in his country menagerie in Earls Court; his eventual thesis outlining his ideas on evolution included a passage headed, 'On the origin of species'. Written some 60 years before Darwin's famous paper, this potentially groundbreaking work was suppressed on religious grounds by the Royal Society. Ultimately, he created the largest anatomical collection of its kind - which has been called 'a museum of evolution' - still to be seen in central London. Although a leading figure of the Enlightenment, and friend to many influential men of his age, including Sir Joseph Banks, Benjamin Franklin and James Watt, Hunter's tireless quest for human and animal bodies drove him to unparalleled extremes that immersed in the murky world of body-snatching. He paid large sums to his criminal contacts for the stolen corpses of men, women and children which were delivered in hampers to his back door. In The Knife Man Wendy Moore unveils John Hunter's extraordinary world - a world characterized by hangings at the Tyburn Tree, by gruesome expeditions to dank churchyards, and by countless human dissections in attic rooms. Meticulously researched, vividly drawn, this is also a fascinating portrait of a remarkable pioneer in the emergent sciences of geology, biology and evolution and his determined struggle to haul surgery out of the realm of superstition and into the dawn of modern medicine.
'Extensively researched and gruesomely compelling, this stunning biography has all the ingredients of a first class best seller. One warning: not to be taken with food! Brilliant' ALISON WEIR
'An extraordinary insight into the experimental, macabre world of a remarkable eighteenth- century surgeon who risked all to learn about the hitherto unknown workings of the human body. From a first glance at the compelling chapter titles - who could resist 'The Surgeon's Penis' - I was gripped by this fascinating medical melodrama.' JOSCELINE DIMBLEBY
Moore has recreated Hunter’s life and times in wonderfully rich detail – the primitive operations without anaesthesia, the bitter rivalries and battles, the struggle against snobbery and orthodoxy, the many exchanges with political, philosophical and literary luminaries of his day – all set against a kaleidoscopic Hogarthian backdrop of gin-shops, brothels, elegant drawing rooms, charnel houses and crude operating theatres. This is a truly fascinating read.’ DR ALAN MARYON DAVIS, WRITER, BROADCASTER AND SENIOR CONSULTANT, GUY'S HOSPITAL
‘Here is a perfect subject for a biography: an exciting and informed account of Hunter's life and times.' PUBLISHING NEWS
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Publication date1st February 2005
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