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

Moore, Wendy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Annotated by:
Woodcock, John
  • Date of entry: Apr-19-2006


Born in 1728 the tenth child in a struggling Scottish farm family, John Hunter was a wayward and unteachable child who spent most of his time outdoors. At the age of 20, with no prospects and having lost his father and 6 siblings, he wrote for help to his older brother William, who was practicing midwifery in London and had just opened England's first anatomy school, one featuring the revolutionary opportunity for students to dissect their own cadavers.

John rode the 400 miles to London on horseback, apprenticed with great success under William, learned dissection, then surgery, and went on to become a supremely gifted anatomist and surgeon, one whose brilliant and tireless experimentation broke with ancient and outmoded medical traditions and established the foundation for modern science-based surgery. (When John arrived in London, the city's Company of Barber-Surgeons had only just dissolved to allow surgeons to organize themselves independently of barbers.)

One of his most important activities in working for his brother--and which continued when he made his own way--was the procuring of cadavers, which because of the customs of the time involved him intimately in the grisly business of grave-robbing.


This is a dramatic and fascinating story of a brave, brilliant, and tireless man who changed the landscape of medicine.

It is full of details from the world of conventional 18th-century medicine, and also from Hunter's single-minded pursuit of scientific truths to set against the beliefs of the ancients that governed the practice of his medical contemporaries. This was a century when bleeding was the therapy for virtually every complaint (and seems to have been the cause of the death of U.S. President George Washington in 1799)--well before medicine had achieved a scientific basis for either diagnosis or treatment.

Against this background, John Hunter's experimental, empirical approach and his intellectual drive to understand life in all its forms made him quite a few establishment enemies, but his successes earned him a wide reputation. At the height of his career, Hunter apparently received 3-4,000 letters a year, and his patients included luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin, Adam Smith, the artists Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds, the philosopher David Hume, and the poet Byron. His students such as Joseph Lister and Edward Jenner went on to make their own revolutionary discoveries, and Hunter's approach to the teaching of surgery was the ground on which modern surgical education was built on both sides of the Atlantic.

Beyond his medical practice, research, and teaching (his reputation brought him many students), Hunter was a prolific writer, and in his anatomical essays expressed heretical views of the origins of life and the age of the earth that anticipated the views of Darwin by well over half a century. Somehow, Hunter also founded a veterinary hospital, and for a while he was also in charge of England's entire military medical operation. Beyond that, he created and accumulated huge collections of surgical and anatomical materials, and he maintained a zoo of exotic live animals that he kept at his country residence.

After Hunter's death, his collections were placed on display in Hunterian museums at London's Royal College of Surgeons (Darwin contributed fossil bones to this collection and was a frequent visitor) and at Glasgow University. Over Hunter's grave in Westminster Abbey is the inscription placed by the Royal College of Surgeons: "Founder of Scientific Surgery." This is a work of the greatest interest to those pursuing the history of medicine and related topics.


The basic text is 275 pp.; additional pages include a chronology, sources and notes, and an index.


Broadway Books

Place Published

New York



Page Count