The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery
by Wendy Moore

This is the biography of titular Knife Man: John Hunter, a poor Scots farmboy who grew up in Georgian England times when medicine was purging, bloodletting, or cupping. Way before Morton made anesthesia or Lister made cleanliness popular, John Hunter set about revolutionizing surgery through his intense focus on anatomy and discovering in practical (and horrific) experiments how the body actually worked instead of relying on age-old traditional ideas about bodily humors.

The book begins with John Hunters childhood and goes on until he establishes his famous Hunterian museum of anatomy (as he made thousands of preserved bones, organs and tissues) and death from (probable) angina.

Along the way, we are treated to a view of an easily irritated, socially awkward, extremely obsessed man. The author speculates at one point that he might have been dyslexic because of his eternal emphasis on carving up dead bodies over hitting the books. I also as a reader might speculate he had a touch of some kind of neuro-atypical makeup as he truly seemed obsessed.

The story sometimes gets bogged down in the same kinds of information being relayed (he was brash, he argued, he was brilliant, his rivals hated his challenging medical tradition, his pupils loved him) but each of the main incidents described in the chapters are pretty fascinating tales of both sordid/criminal behaviors such as his probable links to body-snatchers, stealing dead bodies from their coffins, performing experiments on live victims and his staunch adherence to science as a practical, clinical matter. There’s also politics, lots and lots of politics. Quite interesting to read how people became surgeons and the differences between physicians and surgeons of that time.

Worthwhile reading for those interested in Western medicine developmental history.