Saturday, February 26, 2005


The Knife Man

The Telegraph finds Wendy Moore's new biography The Knife Man: The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery both horrifying and edifying:

There is much suppressing of gag reflexes and crossing of legs to be done when reading this book. Hunter's first task in London was to procure bodies for the anatomy school, which was in a flat in Covent Garden and must have been disgusting for the neighbours.... Hunter experimented with cross-breeding, and, some 70 or so years before On the Origin of Species was published, stated that animals had not necessarily remained the same as they were at "the time of creation". He kept exotic animals – leopards, lions, giraffes – roaming around the grounds of his Earl's Court estate, and boiled up their bones in his basement vat. He picked open eggs at every stage of gestation, trying to pinpoint the first moments of life. He implanted a cock's testicle in the stomach of a hen, without it being rejected.... in a bid to prove gonorrhoea an early stage of syphilis he injected a penis (almost certainly his own, although he didn't say so) with pus from a gonorrhoea patient. Sure enough, syphilitic symptoms followed, and Hunter wrote an influential paper stating that the two diseases were one and the same. In truth, the patient was suffering from both. Hunter's experiment took place while he was engaged to be married - which might explain why the wedding did not go ahead for seven years.

Moore's book isn't coming out in the US until September, but if you're already chomping at the mad-scientist bit then you can find it from British booksellers.

The lengths that Hunter went to to obtain freakish and odd skeletons was legendary, and included having an assistant unnervingly trail a giant around, the better to pounce the moment the fellow dropped dead. In a bit of medico-poetic justice, I recently came across a lengthy 1859 article by the Victorian eccentric Frank Buckland describing how he exhumed John Hunter's skeleton. Hunter had died spurned and reviled by colleagues, and in a fit of penance six decades later the Royal College of Surgeons and Buckland decided that perhaps they should inter their medical patriarch in Westmister Abbey. After over a week of shifting coffins about in Vault 3 of the crypt at St. Martin's in The Fields, Buckland found and opened Hunter's coffin. The sheer "effluvia" of the vault left Buckland ill for weeks afterwards.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?