It came from the stacks: The Knife Man

Welcome to the first installation of an occasional series called IT CAME FROM THE STACKS: an exploration of the hidden gems in our collection

The Knife Man: Blood, body snatching, and the birth of modern surgery by Wendy Moore (2005)
Available on 4th floor Library Stacks: WZ 100 M78k 2005

This book is about John Hunter, an orphaned Scottish boy who grew up to become 18th century London’s premier maverick surgeon, “as reknowned and respected in Georgian England as he was feared and reviled.” The Knife Man explores this larger than life figure, a master surgeon and anatomist who is not only considered the father of modern surgery, but also an inspiration for literary works from Dr. Doolittle to Frankenstein.

Interesting things I learned from this book:

  • John Hunter at one point orchestrated a heist of the corpse of the “Irish Giant“, at the time the world’s tallest man, regardless of the Giant’s explicit orders to the contrary. Hunter was so afraid of getting caught that in preparing the specimen, “he hurriedly chopped the Goliath into pieces, threw the chunks into his immense copper vat, and boiled the lot down into a jumble of gigantic bones. After skimming the fat out of the cauldron, Hunter deftly re-assembled the pile of bones to create [his] awesome skeleton.”
  • In his exploration of sexually transmitted diseases, John Hunter performed a series of experiments on an ‘anonymous subject’ that included inoculating the unnamed man with gonorrhea and recording the effects of various treatments. It is widely postulated the subject of this experiment was Hunter himself. His work Treatise on the Venereal Disease, which stemmed from this research, is available free online.
  • Though Hunter was a renowned & beloved medical teacher, counting Edward Jenner, who developed the smallpox vaccine, and Dr. Philip Syng Physick, American surgeon, among his many students who carried on Hunter’s zeal for medical education. Hunter’s brother-in-law Edward Home would not hold him in such high regard. After his death, Home stole and burnt many of Hunter’s copious notes, but not before plargiarizing several of Hunter’s unpublished experiments as his own.
  • Hunter was an avid collector of exotic animals as well as an anatomist skilled in making medical preparations of human bodies. His collection was so large that he built a museum in his Leicester Square home to house the over 13,700 preparations. Hunter’s home was the inspiration for the house in R.L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. After Hunter died of heart failure during a meeting with his rivals at St. George’s Hospital in 1793, the collection languished until 1799, when it was bequeathed to the Royal College of Surgeons.
  • Bottom line: The Knife Man offers a lively, educational and sometimes tragic glimpse into the rise of modern surgery, as told through the life of one of surgery’s greatest masters.

    One Response to It came from the stacks: The Knife Man

    1. Are we sure he wasn’t Jack the Ripper?