John Hunter and THE KNIFE MAN

With today's release of the e-book edition of Diana Gabaldon's novella, "The Custom of the Army" in the US and Canada, I thought it would be a good opportunity to take a closer look at a character who plays a small but important role in this story: John Hunter.

Some of you may remember that John Hunter was mentioned in AN ECHO IN THE BONE as a distant relative of Denny and Rachel 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.

He was also an infamous body-snatcher, and Lord John seems well aware of his reputation:
Someone was saying something to him. With difficulty, he fixed his attention on Mr. Hunter, standing by his side, still with that look of penetrating interest. Well, of course. They d need a surgeon, he thought dimly. Have to have a surgeon at a duel.

"Yes," he said, seeing Hunter's eyebrows raised in inquiry of some sort. Then, seized by a belated fear that he had just promised his body to the surgeon were he killed, seized Hunter s coat with his free hand.

"You...don't...touch me," he said. "No...knives.  Ghoul," he added for good measure, finally locating the word. Hunter nodded, seeming unoffended.

(From "The Custom of the Army" by Diana Gabaldon. Copyright© 2010 by Diana Gabaldon. All rights reserved.)
John Hunter also makes a brief cameo appearance in the duel scene in THE SCOTTISH PRISONER.

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 actually recommended this book to me three or four years ago, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. I'm reposting my review here for those of you who may have missed it.

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.

Here are some interesting bits of trivia from this book, that may be of interest to OUTLANDER fans. (Page numbers refer to the paperback edition of THE KNIFE MAN.)

- 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)
Look here for some examples of these drawings.

- 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.


Christiane said...

Good morning Karen.I enjoyed your review of the book "John Hunter the Knife Man"very much ! Thanks a lot.I'll do my best to find that so interesting W.Moore's book.J.H.-real historical person-was really far ahead of his time, that's brilliant (though his methods not always all right..).I'll wait patiently for "the Custom" on oct. All the best.

Cari said...

A fascinating man! A bit gruesome, but fascinating nonetheless!

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