Review: The Knife Man: Blood, Body-snatching and the Birth of Modern Surgery; Wendy Moore

Fascinating, informative reading (4 stars)

Source- personal copy

Published in 2006 by Bantam.

I read the paperback edition which is 656 pages (including references) 

The Knife Man… is another one of my chunkster reads for 2014 and was a book I really looked forward to sinking my teeth into. In the end, it actually took me quite a few weeks to finish it (I started this way back in January and kept it as a bedside read only), but it was so worth it. 

The book explores the life of Georgian surgeon John Hunter, charting his journey from an un-ambitious Scottish farmer’s son to the medical pioneer that he later became. At a time when his peers were all for blood-letting to cure every illness going, Hunter was a man well ahead of the pack. Through his own detailed, albeit strange experiments, he strove to learn about the intricacies of life, surgery and natural sciences, never ever conforming to his fellow surgeon’s ideals- sometimes to his own detriment- and leaving a truly important legacy behind him. This book beautifully illustrates the various faces of Hunter- a man who appears to have been feared and revered almost in equal measure, and for me was a genuinely engrossing read. 

Some biographies can be a bit dull, but I truly didn’t experience that here. This is quite possibly because Moore nicely juxtaposes Hunter’s life against some of the intriguing cases he worked on through the years in his rise to the eminent surgeon that he became- and she doesn’t hold back on some of the gore and more graphic details either! I can be quite squeamish on occasion, but the way that the chapters are written was nicely balanced, with just the right amount of technical and biographical detail for my tastes.  I did however have to skip over the parts that talked about his experiments on live animals…! Grim. 

What also intrigued me were the accounts of body-snatching and how Hunter was closely linked to ‘The Ressurectionists’ who stole corpses from London’s graveyards for autopsies and dissections for Hunter’s lectures. Those acts were an open secret in Georgian times and whilst not particularly moral, there is no doubt that if Hunter had not been privy to the cadavers on which he could carry out his work; the surgical field would certainly be poorer for it today. 

Hunter is truly a man of contrasts- whether you consider him to be a maverick or a pioneer of medicine or not- which this book does not hesitate to demonstrate, from his feuds with his brother and colleagues, to his close relationships with his students, who clearly respected him. There is no doubt that the innumerable risks he took in pursuing his profession show that he was perhaps more enlightened than his colleagues were, though when it came to his longing to obtain corpses, he had something of a one-track mind. If he wanted a body, particularly one that was set for burial, then he would do anything to get it, which is a bit gruesome. 

Ultimately, this was a well-researched, concise account of the life of a truly fascinating, albeit eccentric individual. It was nicely paced and informative without burdening the reader with too much detail. Sometimes funny, sometimes poignant but always enlightening, it was a great introduction (for me at least) to the life and times of a wholly important man. 

After thoroughly enjoying Wedlock from the same author (it was one of my favourite reads in 2012), I am keen to read Moore’s other book “How to Create the Perfect Wife” which explores relationships in the eighteenth century and sounds like another intriguing read. I haven’t been overly impressed by other books (either fictional or non-fictional) covering this period in history in the past, but somehow Wendy Moore really has the ability to bring it to life for me. Suffice to say, I would recommend The Knife Man… to anyone with an interest in important figures in both medicine and forensics or anyone who just likes to read unusual biographies.

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One response to “Review: The Knife Man: Blood, Body-snatching and the Birth of Modern Surgery; Wendy Moore

  1. Pingback: February Reading Analysis | my good bookshelf·

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