The Knife Man: The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery by Wendy Moore

knife man

I am one of the most squeamish people in the world when it comes to reading about medical procedures or gory scenes of surgery so I was not exactly thrilled when my book club chose this book to read for our January meeting. I started it with reluctance and a smidge of dread yet quickly found myself several chapters into the book before I knew what had happened.

Moore’s writing is so smooth, so flowing and eloquent and the tale she relates so fascinating that it actually became a pleasure for me to read.

The subject of this fabulous book is John Hunter, a pioneering surgeon who lived and worked in Georgian England. He was a Scot, but ended up in London as a young man when his older doctor brother recruited him to be an assistant at the anatomy school he owned. With an existing passion and curiosity for the natural world it wasn’t long before he began dissecting bodies (mostly robbed from fresh graves or those of criminals) and developed an astounding knowledge of the human body. He also performed experiments to understand more about how certain functions worked in the body and very quickly earned a large following of medical students who appreciated his scientific evidence-based approach to medical care and surgery. During this time period, it was the norm to treat most conditions with blood-letting and Hunter was very opposed to the practice. This didn’t sit well with the establishment and his lack of social skills didn’t help either. He never gained the respect of his fellow surgeons but his patients and students revered him.

In addition to surgery, Hunter was also obsessed with specimen collecting. Over his lifetime he acquired thousands of items from skulls to strange animal skeletons to the organs of famous men he’d treated. This collection eventually found it’s way to the Royal College of Surgeons and was the foundation for the Hunterian Museum which still exists today.

Most of the book club discussion revolved around whether we thought Hunter was crazy, obsessive, a hoarder, uncaring, etc. I think maybe he was a bit of all these. Like many driven, brilliant people he neglected his family and failed to provide a stable life for his wife and two children. But he was an undeniable genius who discovered many new ways to conduct surgery (including a better way to deal with gunshot wounds) that saved many lives, reinforced the experiment-based model as the best way to teach medical students, and even wrote a paper putting forth a theory of evolution which was only published after Darwin’s theory appeared.

I really enjoyed The Knife Man and am so glad that I didn’t let the topic dissuade me from reading it. Moore is also the author of How to Create the Perfect Wife which I must now read as soon as I can.


10 thoughts on “The Knife Man: The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery by Wendy Moore

  1. Well done for picking up something outside of your comfort zone. This doesn’t sound like something I would usually have gone for by the premise but after reading your thoughts it does sound interesting.


    1. It really was interesting, Jessica! I’m glad I didn’t give up on it just because the subject turned me off. That’s the good thing about book clubs – they do expand your horizons.


  2. It sounds fascinating. I’m definitely going to track this one down. The Hunterian Museum is well worth visiting, I go there quite often. Thanks.


      1. I was extremely hesitant but am glad that I was obligated to read it for the book club or else I might never had discovered such a wonderful story.


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