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'The Knife Man'

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THE KNIFE MAN The Extraordinary Life and Timesof John Hunter

By Wendy Moore 341 pages. $26. Broadway Books. *

Reviewed by Mary Roach


The subtitle of "The Knife Man," Wendy Moore's kaleidoscopic rendering of John Hunter and his times, refers to "The Father of Modern Surgery." As it turns out, Hunter's paternity ranged a good deal more widely. Moore is to be forgiven for the omission, as an all-inclusive subtitle would have to read "The Father of Modern Surgery, Experimental Biology, Artificial Insemination, Early Evolutionary Theory, Taxidermy and Dental Implants" and then there'd be no room for the striking Rembrandt cover painting of a cadaver dissection. Like all who taught anatomy and surgery in the 1700s, Hunter had regular dealings with Great Britain's body snatchers. (Since people didn't donate their bodies to science back then, illicitly exhumed corpses were the primary source of material for dissection and research.) Hunter relied on them more than most. He began his career as an untrained assistant at his older brother's anatomy school, and brother William, something of a dandy, passed to John the unsavory task of liaison with the resurrectionists. Having spent his teens amid the Scottish underclass, the younger Hunter felt at home with the thugs and excelled at the task. Hunter's ethical laxity served him well throughout his career. He would later delve into comparative anatomy, vivisecting countless animals. It was Hunter (1728-93) who figured out the purpose of the lymphatic vessels, by pouring warm milk directly into the intestines of a live dog. He pinned down the mechanics of bone growth by implanting two bits of lead in a chicken's leg bone and reopening the wounds months later to see if the space between the two had grown longer or if, as he suspected, new bone had been deposited at the ends. He frequently tested new surgical procedures on unwitting patients at St. George's Hospital. (Well-to-do patients hired private doctors and surgeons to come to their houses; only the destitute went to London's public hospitals, becoming de facto guinea pigs in exchange for free care.)

Hunter's underweight scruples were utterly necessary to his prodigious achievements as a surgeon and a biologist. As with the eminent body-snatching anatomists Leonardo and Vesalius, a sentimentality about the dignity of the corpse would have precluded any and all discoveries, and medical knowledge would have remained in the dark for several centuries. Likewise, a refusal to carry out casual experimentation on his patients would have kept Hunter from making the tremendous medical strides that he made. Before he arrived on the scene, the healing arts had dead-ended at the theories of Hippocrates. These held that disease was the result of an imbalance of "humors" and could be remedied by reducing the unwanted surpluses: by blood-letting, enemas and purgatives, all virtually useless and occasionally fatal.

Moore, a journalist and first-time author, doesn't condone body snatching or vivisection, but she understands why they were done because there were no alternatives. Hunter is a rarity among biographers' subjects, in that his infamy diverting as it is is far less compelling than his fame and his straight-ahead accomplishments. And Moore's tireless devotion to detail brings the man and his maverick career vividly, compellingly, gruesomely to life. That Hunter was an early syphilis researcher is interesting. That he inoculated his own penis with "venereal matter" from a stranger is nothing short of astounding. It isn't just what Hunter achieved that makes him so fascinating, but also what he risked. He confronted the status quo at every turn, making enemies who would ultimately try to damage his legacy. He infuriated physicians who sold useless potions to gonorrhea sufferers by showing that the ailment retreated on its own in a few years. He rejected the near- universal claim that masturbation caused impotence, stating, sensibly, that "a practice so general" could hardly be the cause of a relatively rare affliction. He angered colleagues by publishing papers on the dangers and limitations of surgery and preaching extreme moderation in its practice. He admitted his errors and undercharged his patients. Medicine needs more John Hunters, and biography needs more Wendy Moores.

Mary Roach is the author of "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers" and "Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife," which will be published next month.

(C) 2005 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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