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J R Soc Med. 2005 July; 98(7): 335.
PMCID: PMC1168927

The Knife Man: the Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery

Reviewed by Jonathan Goddard

Wendy Moore
481 pp Price £18.99 ISBN 0-593-05209-9 (h/b)
London: Bantam Press.

Wendy Moore is a journalist and she begins with a racy story of the saving of a coachman's leg from the amputation knife. 'The coachman's knee' is the first of the sensational chapter titles, which include 'The professor's testicle' and 'The surgeon's penis'. But don't let these put you off: her writing style makes the book an easy and exciting read. Furthermore, for those of us greedy for details and explanations, the 70 pages of references and notes show this to be a scholarly and well-researched work. Ms Moore possesses not only the skills of a journalist but also those of a medical historian; she holds a Diploma in the History of Medicine from The Society of Apothecaries.

The book takes you into the dirty, seedy and bad world of the eighteenth century; the world of John Hunter. What you find in him is not the scholarly stuffy professor you might expect but a cantankerous quick-tempered grave robber, an overworked and bitter army surgeon and a science addict who almost bankrupted himself with his obsessive collections. John Hunter's life style, we learn, was the inspiration for Dr Dolittle and Dr Jekyll and perhaps even Mr Hyde.

Looking back now at John Hunter we tend to see a hero of progressive surgery. In his time, however, he was an irritant to many and frankly hated by some—a thorn in the establishment's side with only a select few seeing him as the great scientist he was. Moore uses the works of previous biographers carefully and well, in particular the writings of Jesse Foot. Foot truly hated Hunter; every negative point seems to come from his pen. I still see Hunter as a hero, but I can't wait to add Foot's biography to my library. That is in fact what Moore's book does for me; it makes me want to know more. I want to go to the newly refurbished Hunterian museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, I want to go to his brother William's museum in Glasgow and I want to read more about John Hunter and his times.

If you have an interest in Hunter, medical history or the eighteenth century, you should read this book. Even if not, read it for the good story it is.

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press