Book Review: THE KNIFE MAN

Those of you who've read AN ECHO IN THE BONE may remember Denny and Rachel's distant relative, John Hunter. As Rachel explains:

“John Hunter, bless his name. He is a famous physician, he and his elder brother, who is accoucheur to the Queen herself.” Despite her egalitarian principles, Miss Hunter looked somewhat awed, and William nodded respectfully. “He inquired as to Denny’s abilities, and hearing good report, made provision for Denny to remove to Philadelphia, to board there with a Quaker family and to go to the new medical college. And then he went so far as to have Denny go to London, to study there with himself!”

(From An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon, chapter 39 ("A Matter of Conscience"). Copyright© 2009 by Diana Gabaldon. All rights reserved.)

Denny and Rachel are fictional, but John Hunter was a real historical figure, and a fascinating man, one of the pioneers of modern surgery.

If you're interested in learning more about John Hunter, or 18th century medicine in general, or if you just enjoy a well-written biography, I would recommend Wendy Moore's excellent biography of John Hunter, THE KNIFE MAN (subtitled "Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery").

Diana Gabaldon actually recommended this book to me more than a year ago, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

My review of THE KNIFE-MAN

John Hunter was born in Scotland in 1728, but moved to London as a young man, where his elder brother William was an anatomist.

Some interesting bits of trivia from this book, that may be of interest to OUTLANDER fans:

- John Hunter kept a wolf-dog hybrid (similar to Rollo) as a pet for many years.

- He went to a great deal of effort to obtain cadavers for dissection, often resorting to grave-robbing. (You may recall that Jamie was horrified by Claire's proposing to do an autopsy on Betty, the murdered slave in FIERY CROSS. This seems to have been a very common attitude at the time.)

- His house in London contained an extensive collection of human and animal specimens, including a stuffed giraffe:

Unfortunately, the astonishing stature of the stuffed beast, estimated to have measured as much as eighteen feet, made its accomodation rather difficult. With the rooms housing his collection already bursting at the seams, Hunter was forced to hack off the giraffe's legs and stand it in his entrance hall. The sight presented a dramatic welcome to visitors and patients. (p. 197)

- He deliberately infected himself with gonorrhea in 1767, in an attempt to prove that gonorrhea and syphilis were caused by the same agent, and did in fact contract both diseases.

The experiment, as far as Hunter was concerned, had been a resounding success. It proved, to his satisfaction at least, that gonorrhea developed into lues venerea. In reality, it was a complete disaster. The experiment had been doomed from the outset, since Hunter had plainly used infected matter containing both syphilis and gonorrhea bacteria. The person from whom he had taken the venereal pus had evidently, like so many of Hunter's patients, been a victim of both diseases. The results of the fated trial would set back medical progress in terms of the understanding of sexual diseases for half a century. (pp. 136-37)

- He contributed a great deal to the understanding of fetal development. By dissecting the bodies of women who had died in various stages of pregnancy, John Hunter was able to determine that the maternal and fetal blood supplies were separate. He worked with a Dutch artist, Jan van Rymsdyk, who sketched pictures of the inside of the womb, laid open by Hunter's dissections:

Whereas previously anatomical pictures of babies in the womb had shown curiously adultlike figures floating in a shapeless void, for the first time van Rymsdyk portrayed the intimate relationship between mother and child in a completely naturalistic style. (p. 58)

- He performed the first successful defibrillation in 1774, on a three-year-old girl who had fallen out of a window. Hunter's views on the use of electricity to stimulate the heart are remarkably modern-sounding; clearly he was far, far ahead of his time, on this particular issue at least:

"Electricity has been known to be of service, and should be tried when other methods have failed," he advised. "It is probably the only method we have of immediately stimulating the heart." (p. 188)

Hunter was not without his flaws. For one thing, he had a lifelong aversion to reading (the author speculates that he may have been dyslexic), and therefore could not easily counter attacks by his professional rivals. For another, his obsession with obtaining unusual specimens sometimes led him to take extreme measures that seem grossly unethical by today's standards.

Just to take one example: Moore describes how Hunter became obsessed with obtaining the body of a giant named Charles Byrne, reputed to be at least 7'7" tall. When Byrne died in 1783, he left instructions that his body should be disposed of at sea, in order to keep his remains out of the reach of anatomists like Hunter. But Hunter managed to bribe the undertaker, by paying him the "colossal sum" of £500 in order to procure the giant's body, and had it smuggled into his underground laboratory, where he eventually recreated the enormous skeleton and added it to his collection. I couldn't help but feel sorry for Byrne when I read that.

John Hunter was a very interesting man, and Wendy Moore's account is a fascinating, sometimes horrifying, but always entertaining read. I would encourage you to take a look at it.

And for those of you who are NOT excerpt-avoiders, one final note:








John Hunter makes a "cameo appearance" in Diana Gabaldon's soon-to-be-published Lord John story, "Custom of the Army" (due out March 16, 2010, in an anthology titled WARRIORS). Those of you who have seen the excerpt featuring the electric-eel party may remember him. <g>


Jay said...

Thanks for the review, Karen. I'd read up a bit on John Hunter when Echo was first released but hadn't come across this particular book about him. Sounds like a very interesting read!

Mitzi H. said...

I'm curious...I always thought Syphilis was a fatal disease and yet he seems to have survived it. Did this book say how he managed that?

Karen Henry said...

@Jay - I would never have found it myself if it hadn't been for Diana mentioning it to me on Compuserve. Definitely check it out if you get a chance!

@Mitzi - According to the book, he treated his syphilis with repeated doses of mercury. Not a cure, but apparently it alleviated the symptoms.

NIgheanDubh said...

Karen, thanks for posting Diana's recommendation for The Knife Man and for your review. I decided to order it and am enjoying it. What I found particularly interesting was a detail about hangings, which helped me to understand how Roger was able to survive his horrific ordeal. I won't post the details here, but the tidbit I'm thinking of is on p. 35 of the paper back edition, third full paragraph from the top. It makes so much sense after reading that.

Thanks for bringing this book to our attention.

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