The Knife Man by Wendy Moore was published in 2005, if you haven’t already read Anbolyn at Gudrun’s Tights review you should have a look at it here.
It’s quite bizarre that I learned of this book through a blog written in Arizona (I think). The Knife Man of the title is John Hunter who was born in East Kilbride, Scotland in 1728. He didn’t come from a wealthy family and although he had lots of siblings most of them didn’t survive to adulthood. He was the youngest and his brother William, older than John by 10 years had gone down to England to further his medical career. John wasn’t a bookish boy, in fact he really wasn’t interested in education whilst at school and he just wasn’t a successful student but when his brother invited him down to London to help him with his work in his anatomy school, John turned out to have a great aptitude for the job. He went on to prepare and preserve thousands of anatomy specimens, many of which can still be seen at the Hunterian Museum at Glasgow University, where I have been a frequent visitor for years, small boys especially enjoy the exhibits. I must admit that I didn’t even know why it is called The Hunterian!
John Hunter’s research really started modern surgery, doctors were really quite clueless about most medical problems and were more likely to kill their patients than cure them, bleeding people to death or feeding them dangerous compounds. As Hunter wasn’t actually a doctor he was looked down on by medics but as he was successful in curing people of problems which had previously ended in death or at best amputation – he was obviously very popular with his patients. This didn’t endear Hunter to medics and he made a lot of enemies amongst them which impacted on him to the end of his life.
Hunter had a huge following amongst students of surgery and was very popular with them, despite the fact that he wasn’t a good communicator, his lack of people skills held him back, he wasn’t willing to hob-nob and smarm the right people. On the other hand he was willing to administer his skills to poor people for free and was kind and caring.
It must have been quite unsettling meeting Hunter though as I’m sure most people would have been thinking that he was probably more interested in getting a hold of their dead body than getting to know them, especially if they had some sort of malformation. A vast number of fresh corpses were needed to teach his students anatomy, each one supposed to be given a body to dissect themselves. One of his pupils went on to develop the first vaccine for smallpox.
John Hunter was obsessive about his work and he kept outgrowing his premises as his collections grew, it all cost eye watering amounts of money and whilst his older brother William who had no wife or children, had laid up treasures in this world, in fact he was a miser, John spent every penny he could on his obsession, collecting unusual wild animals – alive and dead. Unfortunately John neglected to provide for his wife and children which had terrible consequences for them.
John worked such long hours that he really worked himself to death, dying at the age of 65, in fact it’s amazing that he lasted as long as he did. John Hunter counted amongst his friends such luminaries as Adam Smith the economist, James Cook the explorer, Dr Johnson, James Boswell, Tobias Smollett and David Hume the philosopher all of them Scots apart from the unfortunate Johnson. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at their gatherings.
John Hunter was Robert Louis Stevenson’s inspiration for Jekyll and Hyde and it’s thought that Hugh Lofting based his Doctor Dolittle books on him too – I can definitely see that.
This book is a fascinating read, I could go on about it for ages, it isn’t really a dark book, despite the fact that Hunter’s work obviously involved body-snatching and even experiments on animals at times, I like to think he gave them some laudanum as he liked animals I’m sure. This book comes under the category of biography but it’s also a history of modern medicine, as opposed to what had been practised until then, medicine hadn’t advanced since Greek times, in fact John Hunter had gone to Cambridge University at one point and had left in disgust as there was nothing that they could teach him, they were stuck in the past.
You can see images of The Hunterian Museum here.